About Alaska’s Wolves
The wolf (Canis lupus) occurs throughout mainland Alaska, on Unimak Island in the Aleutians, and on all of the major islands in Southeast except Admiralty, Baranof, and Chichagof. This range includes about 85 percent of Alaska’s 586,000 square-mile area. Wolves are adaptable and exist in a wide variety of habitats extending from the rain forests of the Southeast Panhandle to the arctic tundra along the Beaufort Sea. Presently wolves are common over much of the state with densities as high as about one wolf per 25 square miles in favorable habitats. Densities are lower 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.
General description: Wolves are members of the family Canidae. Early taxonomists recognized about 24 New World and eight Old World subspecies of Canis lupus, with four subspecies thought to occur in Alaska. Recent studies of skull characteristics, body size, and color suggest that differences are slight with considerable overlap in the characteristics of wolves from various areas. Only two Alaska subspecies are now recognized. Wolves in Southeast Alaska tend to be darker and somewhat smaller 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. Gray or black wolves are most common, and the relative abundance of each color phase varies over time and from place to place. Most adult male wolves in Alaska weigh from 85 to 115 pounds (38.6-52.3 kg), but they occasionally reach 145 pounds (65.3 kg). Females average 5 to 10 pounds (2-5 kg) lighter than males and rarely weigh more than 110 pounds (50 kg). Wolves reach adult size by about 1 year of age, and the largest wolves occur where prey is abundant year round.
Social habits: Wolves are highly social animals and usually live in packs that include parents and pups of the year. Larger packs may have two or three litters of pups from more than one female. Some yearlings may stay with the pack. The social order in the pack is characterized by a dominance hierarchy with a separate rank order among females and males. Fighting is uncommon within packs except during periods of stress, with the dominance order being maintained largely through ritualized behavior. Although pack size usually ranges from 2 to 12 animals, packs of as many as 20 to 30 wolves sometimes occur. The average size pack is 6 or 7 animals. In most areas wolf packs tend to remain within a territory used almost exclusively by pack members, with only occasional overlap in the ranges of neighboring packs. Wolves that are primarily dependent on migratory caribou may, however, temporarily abandon their territory and travel long distances if necessary. In Alaska the territory of a pack often includes from 300 to 1,000 square miles of habitat with the average being about 600 square miles.
Alaska is home to the largest remaining population of gray wolves in the United States. These magnificent creatures roam in diverse habitats across the state, from barren arctic tundra to lush temperate rainforests.
Not only do wolves play an essential role in a healthy ecosystem, but they have also become vital to Alaska’s tourism economy. Travelers from around the world come to the state to see wolves in their natural habitat.
No Protection in Alaska
The State of Alaska classifies wolves as both big game animals and furbearers — this means they can be legally hunted and trapped. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, more than 14,000 wolves were killed by hunters and trappers between 1994 and 2005. But according to the Department’s Game Harvest Summary, the actual number could be significantly higher since unreported takings could equal or exceed the reported number.
Alaskan wolves were never added to the Endangered Species list since populations have never declined to the extent they have in other states. While efforts continue to restore wolves to their former habitats in the lower 48 states, Alaska continues to pursue wolf control programs — including the barbaric practice of aerial gunning.
A Bloody History
Alaska’s wolves have had a bloody history. Before gaining statehood, the U.S. Government killed hundreds of wolves each year — entire packs were shot from airplanes and poisoned throughout the state. Large numbers of wolves were also killed by private citizens in search of bounties offered by the government.
After Alaska became a state in 1959, federal wolf control programs ended and state programs took over — primarily through aerial gunning.
In 1995, negative publicity to Alaska’s wolf snaring program prompted Governor Tony Knowles to suspend the wolf control policy. In addition he called for a review of all of Alaska’s predator control programs by the National Academy of Sciences. The resulting report found that the programs were based on insufficient information.
At the same time, Governor Knowles stated that any predator control program under his administration would have to meet three criteria:
- be scientifically sound
- be publicly acceptable, and
- be cost effective.
Despite the findings of the National Academy of Sciences as well as other scientific studies, wolf control proponents continue to push for intensive culling programs.
Alaska Government Hostile to Public Opinion
Although Alaskans have voted twice to ban aerial control of wolves, the Alaskan legislature and Governor continue to reinstate this cruel and barbaric policy. In his first year as Governor, Frank Murkowski signed a law legalizing aerial gunning of wolves, Sarah Palin stepped up the aerial onslaught of killing wolves, and the practice continues presently.
Defenders Action Fund is working with partners on the ground in Alaska to once again put this issue before voters.