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Wolves are a member of the dog family (Canidae). Wolves in Southeast Alaska tend to be darker and somewhat small than those in northern parts of the state. The pelt color of wolves living in Alaska ranges from black to nearly white, with every shade of gray and tan between these extremes.
Wolves are highly social, living and hunting in packs. Most packs are made up of five to nine individuals, depending on habitat and abundance of prey. Packs are typically composed of an alpha pair and their offspring, including young of previous years. There is a strong dominance hierarchy within each pack. The pack leader, usually the alpha male, is dominant over all other individuals. The next dominant individual is the alpha female, who is subordinate only to the alpha male. Rank within the pack hierarchy determines which animals mate and which eat first. Rank is demonstrated by postural cues and facial expressions, such as crouching, chin touching, and rolling over to show the stomach. Wolves run at speeds up to 35 to 45 miles per hour. In Alaska, the territory of a pack often includes from 200 to 1,000 square miles of habitat. Vocalizations, such as howling, allow pack members to communicate with each other about where they are, when they should assemble for hunting, and with other packs about where the boundaries of territories are.
Wolves are carnivores and, in most of mainland Alaska, moose and caribou are their primary food. During summer, small mammals including voles, lemmings, ground squirrels, snowshoe hares, beaver and occasionally birds and fish are supplements in the diet. The rate at which wolves kill large mammals varies with prey availability and environmental conditions. A pack may kill a moose every few days during winter. At other times, they may go for several days with almost no food. Since wolves are opportunistic, young, old or debilitated animals are preyed upon more heavily than healthy middle-aged animals. A wolf can consume up to 20 pounds of meat at one meal.
The dominant pair in a wolf pack are the only members that breed. This pair is monogamous although, with the death of an alpha individual, a new alpha male or female will emerge and take over as the mate. Wolves breed in February and March and litters averaging 4 to 7 blind and deaf pups are born in May or early June. Pups are usually born in a den excavated as much as ten feet into well-drained soil. They are cared for by all members of the pack. Until they are 45 days old the pups are fed regurgitated food by all pack members. They are fed meat provided by pack members after that age. From day 22 to day 70, the pups leave the den for the first time and learn to play fight. Interactions at this time, as well as the dominance status of the mother, ultimately determines their position in the pack hierarchy. By early winter, they are capable of traveling and hunting with adult pack members. Wolves are great travelers and packs often travel 10 to 30 or more miles in a day during winter. They reach adult size at one year of age. Most young wolves disperse from their natal pack when they are between 1 and 3 years old.
Wolves are common over much of the state, with the highest densities in Southeast Alaska where Sitka black-tailed deer are the major food source. Densities are lowest in the coastal portions of western and northern Alaska. Although the distribution of wolves has remained relatively constant in recent times, their abundance has varied considerably as prey availability, diseases, and harvests have influenced their numbers. In spite of a generally high birth rate, wolves rarely become abundant because mortality is high. In much of Alaska, predation by other wolves and hunting and trapping are the major sources of mortality, although diseases, malnutrition, and accidents also act to regulate wolf numbers. Wolves play an important role in the ecosystem by controlling natural prey populations and removing weak individuals. In the Lower 48 states, as settlement increased, the belief that livestock was endangered by wolf populations also increased. As such, the frequency of hunting the wolf exploded. The populations were nearly eradicated. Successful recovery plans have been developed throughout the country. These plans evaluate the populations to determine distribution, abundance, and status. The main cause of population declines has been habitat destruction and persecution by humans. Populations in Alaska and Canada have remained steady and are fairly numerous.