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EIGHT YEARS OF WOLF RESEARCH at McKinley Park

My interest in wolves, wilderness and northern ecology began during three years I spent in Isle Royale National Park, an island wilderness in Lake ...

2 Mar

EIGHT YEARS OF WOLF RESEARCH at McKinley Park


My interest in wolves, wilderness and northern ecology began during three years I spent in Isle Royale National Park, an island wilderness in Lake Superior, Michigan, famous for its moose-wolf relationships. To most young outdoorsmen, however, the ultimate call of the wild is in Alaska. In 1966, I found my opportunity to answer this call, working during the summer months as a ranger in Mount McKinley National Park. At the same time I began a long-range wolf study in McKinley, and this effort now covers virtually all aspects of the ecology and behavior of wolves and their prey. The early stages of the work provided material for a thesis I wrote for a Master of Science degree at Northern Michigan University. The current phase of this eight-year-old project is being used for a dissertation I am writing at the University of British Columbia, where this year I hope to earn a Doctor of Philosophy degree in zoology, under the well-known ecologist, Ian McTaggart-Cowan. I intend to continue the project indefinitely, but already it represents one of the most intensive studies ever undertaken in the wild of same known groups of a large predator and its prey.

A number of organizations have supported this work, among them the World Wildlife Fund, Andrew Mellon Foundation, National Research Council of Canada, National Park Service and the Boone and Crockett Club, the latter a major national sportsman's organization oriented primarily toward hunting.

During the summer months, I do much of the field work on foot, observing the wolves at their dens and other home sites and carrying out various surveys of their prey. In the winter, however, the wolves use no fixed home site and move almost continuously throughout the rugged terrain of their large territories. Consequently during this part of the year it is necessary to observe them from a small ski-equipped plan, a Super cub, circling low overhead for three to 10 hours a day.

Chalon Harris of McKinley Park, owner and operator of Denali Flying Service, does most of the flying. His experience in the McKinley region as well as his unusual skill as a natural pilot, keen wildlife observer and a biologist have been a tremendous asset to my work.

Don Sheldon, one of the most colorful and experienced bush pilots in Alaska, has also done much flying for me and his assistance has been invaluable.

The wolves have become accustomed to the presence of the airplane and are not disturbed by it.

I have concentrated my efforts on two adjacent packs -- one with a territory of 600 square miles and the other with a territory of about 1,000 square miles -- and have been able to observe these groups and their prey for extended periods during all seasons, for many succeeding years.

It is clear from my studies and those of others that the wolf has an elaborate, highly advanced form of social behavior; perhaps the most advanced of all the animals below the level of man.

Life within a pack, which in most cases is an extended family consisting of pups, parents, grandparents, uncles, and cousins, is replete with rituals, divisions of labor and other variations in behavior which adapt the species to a variety of changing conditions. Each wolf has its own personality, and the ability of each to express many humanlike emotions becomes obvious after one watches the same individuals for even a short time.

Although there is considerable freedom for individual expression, the group adheres to the well-defined framework of a dominance hierarchy -- a kind of pecking order -- in which each wolf knows its position. Because of this there are few if any instances of pronounced strife. The result is an exceptionally harmonious way of life. In more than 1,200 hours of watching wolves in the wild, I have never seen fighting among adults of an established pack.

Most important, however, this highly developed social organization seems to result in an efficient division of labor within the pack, with the top-ranking adults assuming the most important responsibilities. The pack leader or "alpha" male -- the strongest, fastest, wisest, most experienced wolf -- has the ultimate decision-making power and his authority is unquestioned. He sires the young of the pack and the pack relies on him in critical situations.

His mood usually dictates the mood of the pack, and all regularly acknowledge his authority in a variety of ritualized ceremonies.

The leadership of the alpha male has been particularly evident in one of the two packs I have followed over the past eight years. However, generally this wolf remains relatively inconspicuous in his behavior during most of the group's activities, and it is the "beta" or number two male who directs most of the routine activities. It is almost as if he acts as a kind of co-leader or strong assistant to the alpha male. The beta male often takes the initiative when the pack is on the hunt, and during the early part of the denning period he attends to the whelping female even more closely than does her mate, the alpha male, although all individuals participate to some extent in the duties of hunting and caring for the mother and young.

The beta male's particular attentiveness to the breeding female and her reciprocal attraction to him would almost lead one to conclude they are mates, but my observations of this pack during courtship and mating over the past two winter indicate this isn't so. So long as the present alpha male retains his authority, the top female will remain his mate....