Alaska is home to the largest remaining population of gray wolves in the United States. Some 7,000 to 9,000 wolves roam the state in habitats as diverse as barren arctic tundra and lush temperate rainforest.
Alaska’s wolves play an essential role in maintaining healthy prey populations and biodiversity in their ecosystems. They are also vital to the state’s tourism economy: People from all over the world come to Alaska for the opportunity to see a wild wolf. Wolves are highly intelligent and social animals that communicate with one another using a variety of sounds, facial expressions, postures and rituals. They live in close-knit family groups, or packs, led by an alpha male and female. Pack members have well-defined roles that include participation in the care of the young. Each pack has a home range of approximately 600 square miles and can travel up to 100 miles daily. Gray wolves are not necessarily gray; shades of black, white, brown and tan are common. Adults usually weigh 85 to 115 pounds. In Alaska, wolves feed primarily on moose, caribou, Dall sheep, beavers and rodents.
DENALI NATIONAL PARK
The wolves of Denali National Park are the most viewed, photographed and studied in the world. More than 20,000 visitors to Denali each year have the special experience of seeing a wolf in the wild. Although they are mostly protected inside the park, many Denali wolves extend their home ranges into unprotected areas outside park borders where hunters and trappers kill several of them each year. The state recently banned hunting and trapping in about 100 square miles of land adjacent to the park. But additional acreage must be included in the ban to fully protect Denali’s wolves, especially the highly visible Sanctuary pack that occupies territory at the eastern entrance of the park.
The Alexander Archipelago wolf is found only in the temperate rainforests along Alaska’s southeastern coast. Geographically isolated from the rest of the state’s wolves, these animals are smaller and darker and are recognized as a subspecies of the gray wolf. They are good swimmers and commonly feed on salmon, waterfowl and seals as well as deer. Unfortunately, the old-growth rainforests favored by Alexander Archipelago wolves are being fragmented and destroyed by commerc i a l logging activities. Unless adequate tracts are preserved, the long-term term survival of this subspecies is questionable.
On northern Alaska’s arctic tundra, where snow and ice prevail most of the year and prey densities fluctuate widely, wolves require territories of 1,000 square miles or more. Consequently, there are fewer wolves here than elsewhere in Alaska. As they travel the open expanses in pursuit of migrating caribou and other prey, these wolves are highly vulnerable to hunters on snowmobiles. This method of hunting and numerous outbreaks of rabies in recent decades have claimed enough wolves to warrant consideration of greater protections for the wolf populations of the northern tundra. Alaska’s wolves may have ample habitat and good numbers overall, but they do face challenges, particularly in some areas.
WOLF MANAGEMENT IN ALASKA
Many myths surround wolves. Perhaps the most persistent is that wolves pose a danger to humans. In North America, there are no accounts of healthy wild wolves killing humans and only a few documented cases of wolves biting people over the past century. Most of these cases involved rabid animals or animals that had been fed by humans. But it is fact, not myth, that the federal government once killed hundreds of wolves in Alaska each year. Wolves were poisoned and entire packs were shot from airplanes. Bounties were offered to entice private individuals to eliminate large numbers of wolves. Federal wolf control efforts ended when Alaska became a state in 1959, but widespread, state-sanctioned wolf control, primarily involving shooting wolves from aircraft, continued in the 1960s and 1970s. Since then, wolf control has been intermittent due to public pressure such as the tourism boy cott threatened in the early 1990s. However, ground shooting, trapping and snaring by licensed hunters are allowed in most of Alaska and have increased dramatically. Since 1998, more than 4,700 wolves have been legally killed. The number killed illegally also is thought to be substantial. Yet wolf control supporters continue to press for liberal wolf hunting laws andwolf control programs they believe will increase moose and caribou numbers for hunters. Alaska ’s citizens voted for a statewide initiative in 1996 and a referendum in 2000 to ban “land and shoot” wolf hunting by the public. This practice involves locating wolves from the air, then landing the plane nearby and immediately shooting them. Not only is this method unsport smanlike, unethical and nearly impossible to regulate, it also leads to many other violations of hunting regulations such as chasing, herding and harassing wolves. Most decisions on wolves rest with the Alaska Board of Game, a seven-member panel of citi zens appointed by the governor and confirmed by the legislature. In recent years, the legislature has narrowed the regulatory power of the Game Board by statute, mandating intensive predator control in areas heavily used by hunters. The legislature has also blocked the appointment of board candidates who oppose wolf control. Wolf management remains controversial in Alaska despite the fact that scientific studies have shown that wolves are critical to maintaining healthy, balanced ecosystems. Wolves prey on old, sick and genetically inferior individuals, which increases the health and vigor of prey populations. Research has also shown that wolf predation is rarely the sole cause of significant or long-term declines in prey populations.