Elusive mammal at home in Interior

Woodchucks really do live in Alaska

Posted: Friday, July 20, 2001

FAIRBANKS -- Today's Alaska wildlife quiz: There are woodchucks in Alaska, true or false?

It's true and the Interior is the only place in the Last Frontier you will find them.

''A lot of people don't believe it,'' said wildlife biologist Don Young at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks. ''When I first came up here I was skeptical, too.''

Most of the calls Fish and Game receives concerning woodchucks fall into two categories, Young said. ''Most of the calls we get are curiosity and amazement,'' he said. ''People say, 'I swear I saw a woodchuck but it can't be.''

Nobody is quite sure how or when they got here or how many of them there are, but more and more of them are being spotted along the roads, both dead and alive.

''I've seen lot of them killed on the roads this summer,'' said Pam Bruce, a former wildlife biologist who now drives a tour bus for Princess Tours.

There are several woodchuck dens on Creamers Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge, said Mark Ross, education coordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game who keeps an eye on the rodents. Ross has also seen woodchuck dens on Fort Wainwright.

Bruce has seen them at the Chena River Flood Control Project and they have been spotted along the Steese Highway and Chena Hot Springs Road north of town.

Bruce is about as close to a woodchuck expert as there is in Alaska. She studied the critters for five years as refuge manager at Creamers Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge in the early 1990s.

She surgically implanted transmitters into the stomachs of woodchucks so she could track their movements.

Just how woodchucks ended up in Alaska is up for debate. ''It's just like they dropped out of the sky,'' Bruce said. ''It's always been intriguing as to how they got here.''

There are no reports of woodchucks in Alaska before construction of the Alaska Highway in the 1940s and some people, Bruce being one of them, think the rodents were transplanted, possibly brought into the state by someone as pets or even as stowaways.

''I think somebody brought them in,'' Bruce said.

Other people, however, think their presence is a result of a natural range expansion. A sliver of habitation does lead from the eastern U.S. to the northwest, following riverbeds and major highways such as the Alaska Highway.

There are isolated reports of woodchucks in the Yukon Territory and some people believe woodchucks may have ended up in Alaska by colonizing the cleared areas on the side of the highway after it was built.

''If you look at the distribution chart it's continuous all the way up through the eastern U.S. and into central Canada, British Columbia, the Yukon Territory and into eastern Alaska,'' Young said.

People may be seeing more woodchucks as a result of a series of mild winters, Bruce said. ''If we get a severe winter they don't do very good,'' she said.

Woodchucks are one of three marmot species that reside in Alaska. They live at lower elevations than their cousins, the hoary marmot and Alaska marmot.

During her study, Bruce documented woodchucks moving into Creamers Field from other areas. In 1990, a yearling male who had taken over the territory of an older 5-year-old male that had died in 1989 bred all three females in the area and overwintered with one, which is rare because woodchucks normally hibernate alone. Males roamed around much more than females, she said.

Woodchucks hibernate in the winter, holing up in their burrows several feet below ground for six months or more.

Woodchucks are classified as a furbearer in Alaska and can be legally trapped or shot by someone with a trapping license. But Fairbanks trapper and fur buyer Joe Mattie at Arctic Raw Fur Co. has yet to have anyone bring him a woodchuck pelt.

''I don't know anything about woodchucks,'' Mattie said.

Now that woodchucks have colonized the Interior, they are probably here to stay, Bruce said.

''They're never going to get to the density in Alaska they are in the Lower 48,'' Bruce said. ''Here they're really spread out. A male has to travel quite a ways to find a female.''

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