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Wolves and caribou in Denali National Park, Alaska

June 9, 2009

Management of gray wolves (Canis lupus) and their prey in interior Alaska has been controversial for three decades (Harbo and Dean 1983). Recently, debate was rekindled with renewed interest in wolf control to bolster two populations of caribou (Rangifer tarandus). Our research in Denali National Park provides insights into the declines in caribou numbers over the last few years that are the basis of recent wolf control proposals. Our observations of fluctuating populations also illustrate the complexity of managing these predator-prey systems to meet a diverse array of public interests.

Wolves and caribou are two components of the large mammal community of Denali National Park that also includes grizzly bears (Ursus arctos), moose (Alces alces), and Dall sheep (Ovis dalli). With the 1980 park expansion to more than 18,800 km2 (7,300 mi2) of central Alaska, this large mammal system became the only one of its kind that is virtually unaffected by human harvest. Therefore, Denali provides a unique opportunity to understand the natural interactions of these species and serves as a baseline for comparison with areas where hunting or other active wildlife management occurs.

We have studied Denali's wolves and caribou since 1986 to determine their numbers and status and understand their natural interactions in this protected subarctic ecosystem. Our studies began near the end of more than a decade of mostly light winter snowfalls of around 100 cm (39 in)/yr. Since winter 1988-89, we have experienced five consecutive winters with above-average snowfalls, including two record-setting years. During winters 1990-91 and 1992-93, more than 390 cm (154 in) of snow fell, four times as much as in the early years of our study. This change in snowfall had profound effects on the wildlife in central Alaska. The population trends of Denali's caribou and wolves are strong evidence of the natural fluctuations to be expected in species inhabiting such dynamic and variable environments.

Citation Information

Publication Year 1995
Title Wolves and caribou in Denali National Park, Alaska
Authors Layne G. Adams, L. David Mech
Publication Type Book Chapter
Publication Subtype Book Chapter
Index ID 5210519
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Patuxent Wildlife Research Center