Wolves have traditionally been one of the most misunderstood, misrepresented, and maligned mammals, in both fact and fable. We’ve come a long way from the days when it was believed that wolves were innately evil, with the visage of the devil himself, eating their hapless prey—or little girls in red hoods—alive. But it wasn’t until the mid-1940s, when wildlife biologist Adolph Murie began a long-term and systematic study of the wolves in Mt. McKinley National Park, that all the misconceptions of the accepted lore about wolves began to change.
For three years Murie tramped mainly on the plains below Polychrome Pass and became extremely intimate with several wolf families. (His book, The Wolves of Mount McKinley, published in 1944, is still considered a classic natural history text.)
Though Murie concluded that a delicate balance is established between predator and prey to their mutual advantage, declining Dall sheep populations, political pressure, and, indeed, tradition forced the park service to kill wolves, which were considered, against Murie’s conclusions, to be the cause of the sheep decline. Typically, though, the wolf population was in just as dire straits as the sheep, and for several years no wolves were killed in the feds’ traps because of their scarcity.
Since then, many researchers and writers have come to incisive conclusions about the wolf. It has been determined that their social systems—within the pack and with their prey—are amazingly complex and sophisticated. The alpha male and female are the central players in the pack, surrounded by 4–7 pups, yearlings, and other adults. The dominant female receives a long involved courtship from the dominant male (though he might not necessarily be the biological father of the pups). Territories can be as small as 200 square miles and as large as 800 square miles, depending on a host of influences.
Perhaps the most complex and fascinating aspect of wolf activity is the hunt. Barry Lopez, author of the brilliant Of Wolves and Men, argues persuasively that the individual prey is as responsible as the wolf for its own killing, in effect “giving itself to the wolf in ritual suicide.” Lopez maintains that the eye contact between the wolf and its prey “is probably a complex exchange of information regarding the appropriateness of a chase and a kill.” Lopez calls this the “conversation of death.”
With the advent of radio collaring and tracking from airplanes, the movements of individual wolves and packs have continually surprised wildlife biologists. Wolves often travel 5–10 miles per hour for hours at a time. In a matter of days, an individual cut loose from a pack can wind up 500 miles away. Thus wolves are able to select and populate suitable habitats quickly.
Alaska’s 7,500–10,000 wolves are thriving, even though roughly 15 percent of them are harvested yearly by trappers. They can be found all the way from the Southeastern panhandle to the Arctic slope, but are most common in Interior Alaska. Denali National Park offers travelers the best chance to see a wolf from the road system, but wolves may also be seen in other parts of the Alaska Range, in Brooks Range foothills, and in Wrangell–St. Elias National Park.
Captive wolves can be seen at the Alaska Zoo (www.alaskazoo.com) in Anchorage. A nonprofit organization, Wolf Song of Alaska (www.wolfsongalaska.org), has an education center in downtown Anchorage. A highly controversial state-sponsored hunting program has targeted wolves in some parts of the state to increase the survival of caribou and moose. The program includes the aerial killing of wolves and is widely opposed by environmental groups but applauded by some hunting organizations.
© Don Pitcher from Moon Alaska, 10th Edition