Peninsula boasts healthy population of wolves

Posted: Friday, February 21, 2003

While many people think the wolf is a species that needs to be closely monitored for protection, others see the animal as competition in their pursuit of big game hunting and would like to see it extirpated.

The grey wolf (Canis lupus) occurs throughout most of mainland Alaska. Wolves are highly social animals that form packs from two to 12 animals, but packs of as many as 20 to 30 wolves have been known to occur.

Estimates vary from year to year, but the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has estimated wolf numbers at between 7,500 and 10,000 animals in 700 to 900 packs throughout the state.

"Here on the peninsula the population is relatively stable at 200 to 250 animals in 20 to 22 packs with some lone individuals," said Jeff Selinger, area Fish and Game biologist.

The diet of wolves is highly variable, Selinger said. They are carnivores capable of hunting and bringing down adult moose and caribou, which are the majority of their prey. They also will scavenge on carcasses and gut piles. Season, location and prey availability all factor into the variability of their diet.

In most winters with heavy snow deposits, "Moose break through the surface crust and then wade through the deep snow," said Selinger. "The wolves can stay on the crust and easily prey on the moose."

In winters with little snowfall, such as this year, wolves may not prey on moose under these specific conditions, but they're probably still preying on moose. They just have to work harder to get them.

"Even in winters as mild as this one, moose can starve because they're on a sub-maintenance diet in winter," said Selinger. "This means they're eating a large amount of food, but it's not very nutritious since the bulk of it is twigs and wood, so they still lose body condition (and can starve)."

Selinger said Fish and Game also has received reports of drowned moose carcasses from the November floods.

"In year's like this those carcasses may be available," he said.

"Wolves are highly adaptable and can find food under a lot of different conditions," said Selinger. "They may focus on beavers whose caches were washed away and are out looking for food. They will also take goats, sheep and snowshoe hares when they're abundant."

Litter sizes for wolves can be directly correlated to the amount of food they are able to consume, whether from hunting or scavenging.

Normal liter sizes is anywhere from four to seven pups, but in sparse conditions as few as two pups may be born and in bountiful conditons up to 10 pups is not unheard of.

Selinger said, "If wolves don't get the proper nutrition in winter, this can affect litter sizes, but we don't know that's the case this year because it's too early to tell."

In winter, aerial surveys are often conducted to search for wolf tracks. These tracks are then followed by biologists to find the wolves that made them in an effort to conduct a census of the current population.

However, the small snowfall amounts this winter have made these surveys difficult.

Selinger went on to say, "We have a healthy population of wolves here on the peninsula and they're a prolific species. Even if the litter sizes were small this year, the population could rebound easily due to their high reproductive potential."

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