Still within sight

[by Bill Sherwonit]

On a clear and crisp September morning, a friend and I sat side by side on a tundra knoll deep inside Denali National Park and aimed our binoculars at the Plains of Murie, searching for Canis lupus.

Two days earlier, we’d spotted a group of wolves moving across the same sweeping expanse. Members of the park’s Grant Creek pack, the foursome included a pale gray to white adult—the family’s alpha, or dominant, female—plus a darker gray subadult and two pups. We watched the distant wolves for nearly a half-hour until they disappeared into dense willow thickets. Now we’d returned, hoping for more.

About an hour into our watch, we heard a faint wailing. In the many years I’ve visited Denali—nearly every summer or fall since the mid-1980s—I’ve seen wolves on several occasions, but this was the first one I heard howl. My heartbeat quickened and a shiver passed through me.

A second, high-pitched, plaintive cry followed the first. Several minutes later, the wolf revealed itself: a mostly dark brown youngster, one of the pups seen earlier. We intently scanned the surrounding terrain but found no others.

Gray wolf howls in Denali National park, interior, Alaska.

After a while, the pup returned to the willows, moving in and out of cover for the next several hours, howling intermittently and even occasionally pacing along the Denali Park Road. The young wolf seemed to wonder where the rest of its family might be. Our best guess was that the others had gone hunting and left this one behind at the pack’s rendezvous site. Why one pup would join the hunt and not the other seemed a mystery. Or had the sibling simply stayed in hiding the entire time? When we finally left that evening, the other pack members still hadn’t returned, but I had faith the family would be reunited soon.

The Grant Creek family members we watched that September are among the best-known and most visible of Denali’s wolves, though sightings of the animals have dropped substantially in recent years, part of an overall decline in the number of wolves seen by visitors.

In 2010, the park teamed with the University of Alaska Fairbanks to begin a long-term study of wolf movements, wolf survival and wolf-viewing opportunities along the Denali Park Road, where most sightings occur. That first year, wolves were seen on nearly half of westbound shuttle-bus trips between the Savage River and Eielson Visitor Center, a distance of some 50 miles. Since then, wolf sightings have dropped precipitously, reaching lows of four percent in 2014 and six percent in 2015.

That drop in the wolf-viewing index mirrors a substantial—and to some wildlife conservationists, worrisome—decline in the park’s wolf population. In spring 2015, researchers estimated that only 48 wolves inhabited Denali at any given time, the lowest number since annual surveys began in 1986.

By contrast, from 1988 through 2008, Denali’s estimated wolf population never fell below 78 individuals and exceeded 90 most years (with 116 wolves as recently as 2006).

Gray wolf cub, Denali National Park, interior, Alaska.

Park staff says the causes of the downturn (since 2008) are unknown, but likely factors include low-snow winters that favor moose and caribou over wolves, relatively poor pup recruitment and animals that wander outside protected park boundaries and are killed by trappers or hunters. In particular, the trapping death of an alpha female is argued by some to cause the social breakdown of a pack. This appeared to happen in 2005 with the Toklat pack (which has since shown recovery) and again in 2012 when the alpha female of the Grant Creek pack was trapped. The pack split, produced no offspring and dwindled from 15 wolves to just three. Though seen now and again, the Grant Creek wolves have never been as highly visible as they were in 2012.

Like those elsewhere, Denali’s wolf packs live in territories that they maintain in three ways: scent marking, howling and aggression. The territories of neighboring packs sometimes overlap, but wolves will kill interlopers who invade their turf.

Highly social predators, wolves depend on cooperation to survive. Led by the alpha male and female, Denali’s wolves mostly hunt ungulates: sheep, moose and caribou. Other animals in their diet include snowshoe hares, ground squirrels, voles, marmots and porcupines.

A wolf’s year is divided into two main seasons: summer and winter. Females seek out a den in May, which serves as a base the next two months. Born the second or third week of May, litters average four to five pups. While mom looks after the newborns, other family members disperse to hunt, sometimes in small groups or pairs, but most often alone.

By mid-summer pups are moved to an above-ground rendezvous site—much like what my friend and I observed—where they sleep, eat, play and begin to explore their world. Wolves are known for play behavior and both pups and adults engage in “play fights” and other socializing.

By late September or early October, the pups are ready to travel, and the family becomes a nomadic group. Following each other in single file, the most efficient way to travel through snow, they may cover up to 50 miles in a day.

Federal biologist Steve Arthur maintains that surveys conducted the past few years don’t suggest a continued decline of wolves in Denali but a “relatively stable population that is at low density.”

Wolf from the Grant Creek pack takes a full belly of food and an arctic ground squirrel back to feed the pups, Denali National Park, interior, Alaska.

Despite the fluctuations, Denali National Park remains the best place in Alaska—and arguably North America—for people to see wolves in the wild. And it seems likely to stay that way. Both federal and state biologists insist Denali’s wolves don’t face any “biological emergency.” The species is known to experience cyclical highs and lows in response to prey availability, weather, human harvest and other factors. In fact, Denali researchers have long described the park’s wolf population as highly dynamic. Over the past three decades, Denali’s wolf numbers have ranged from 48 to 134, a nearly three-fold difference.

The pups we observed on the Plains of Murie in early September would soon leave that rendezvous site for good and join the rest of the family on ever-lengthening forays: long months of being on the move, following in each other’s steps through Alaska’s longest, harshest season, hunting for food.

To view more photography from Patrick J. Endres go to AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com.

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