Denali Park Road – Sable Pass

This post is part of a series on the Traveling the Denali Park Road – to read the series from the beginning, click here.

A typical spring day for us takes us into the Sable Pass at about 9am. Sable Pass is unique even by Denali standards. 5 square miles have been closed off to human activity since the mid 1950’s. Biologists noticed that the Sable was something of a crossroads for grizzly bears. There’s a rough estimate of between 200-300 grizz in the park. They each have a range of between 15 and 23 square miles per bear. 15 for females, 23 for males. Some bears would come out of their normal range areas to the Sable, in the spring to feed on wintered over berries and new green grass shoots. We take our time in the Sable and sometimes mother grizzly will bring their spring cubs right to the roadside! They do  this to train the cubs. By bringing them to the road the cubs learn that they don’t have to be afraid of the busses and all our adoring faces. She teaches them to forage and dig for roots along the roadside. The cubs stay with the mothers 3 complete seasons and are taken through what amounts to grizzly bear marine camp. The mother is of course the drill sergeant. A very proud mother she certainly is, occasionally nursing the cubs right next to the bus. As they mature a noticeable change of personality occurs. When we first see them they are very timid, but by summers end they literally own the road and know it too!

The Sable area also gives us the opportunity to find caribou. At a cabin nearby on the East Fork River another of the Denali greats Adolph Murie spent 3 summers and parts of 2 winters studying caribou and their relationship to the gray wolf. By the early 1940’s he had enough evidence gathered and used it to produce a landmark study later published in a popular form as” The Wolves of Mnt. McKinley National Park”. In the late 1920’s a series of severe winters had stressed and decimated the caribou, sheep, and moose populations. Political pressure was brought to bear on the Park Service to institute a wolf kill program. A modified program was put in place in 1929, but before a full fledged program was to begin the Park Service wanted to have a documented study so they could accurately gauge the numbers to be removed. Murie with a doctorate in wildlife biology from the University of Minnesota was the man for the job. His study and particularly his philosophy of wildlife management put in place, form the basis of many Park Service decisions to this day. He also concluded that the wolves had a “salutary effect” on the other animal populations. They did take many caribou calves, they also took older and sick animals which meant only the strongest and heartiest were alive to propagate the species. He also recommended an early version of complete ecosystem management. He called the park road an artificial intrusion into wilderness and said it benefited predators over prey. He also recommended against a wolf kill program. Adolph Murie is the guiding philosophical intellect of Denali.

The Sable Pass area also gives us opportunities to find caribou, sometimes feeding within 50 yards of grizzlies! The caribou have a strategy though, they will almost always be above the bear looking down on it, if the bear shows interest they force it to chase them uphill and easily out distance the bear. Bears don’t eat much mature caribou, though they would certainly like to. When they do get a grown caribou it is usually from taking over a wolf killed animal. For us that’s a National Geographic moment and we do get those too! Bear laying on top of caribou, wolves circling around 6 feet away growling… all’s lost after all.

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