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Wolf (Canis lupus)
Species Profile

Did You Know?

There are 7,000 to 11,000 wolves in Alaska.

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 Alaska wolves ranges from black to nearly white, with every shade of gray and tan in between. 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 Interior Alaska weigh from 85 to 115 pounds (38.6-52.3), but they occasionally reach 145 pounds (65.3 kg). Females average 10 to 15 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.

Life History

Wolves are social animals and usually live in packs that include parents and pups of the year. The average pack size is six or seven animals, and pack members often include some yearlings and other adults. Packs of 20 to 30 wolves sometimes occur, and these larger packs may have two or three litters of pups from more than one female.

The social order in the pack is characterized by a separate dominance hierarchy among females and males. 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.

Despite a generally high birth rate, wolves rarely become abundant because mortality is also high. In much of Alaska, the major sources of mortality are: predation by other wolves; hunting; and trapping. Diseases, malnutrition, and accidents also help regulate wolf numbers. Predation by other wolves is a major cause of death because wolves defend their territories from other wolves. Dispersing wolves (e.g., young adults) are common but they typically find little suitable habitat that is not already occupied by other wolves.

Reproduction

Typically one female wolf in a pack has a litter of about seven pups each year. This varies, in some packs more than one female may bring off a litter.

In some cases a pair of wolves may not form a pack or belong to a pack, and will bring off a litter of pups.

Diet

Wolves are carnivores, and in most of mainland Alaska moose and/or caribou are their primary food, with Dall sheep, squirrels, snowshoe hares, beaver, and occasionally birds and fish as supplements in the diet. The rate at which wolves kill large mammals varies with prey availability and environmental conditions. A pack may kill a deer or moose every few days during the 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-age animals. Under some circumstances, however, such as when snow is unusually deep or prey is scarce, even animals in their prime may be vulnerable to wolves.

In Southeast Alaska, Sitka black-tailed deer, mountain goats, and beaver are the most important sources of food. Research indicates that salmon are important seasonally where they are available, especially to young wolves. During summer, small mammals including voles, lemmings and ground squirrels are taken. Wolves also scavenge, and coastal wolves will beach comb.

Range and Habitat

The wolf 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. Alaska is home to an estimated 7,000 to 11,000 wolves. Wolves have never been threatened or endangered in Alaska. They are found in nearly all of their historic range, excepting the center of urban areas, although they are found on the outskirts of Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau. Wolves are common over much of the state. The highest densities occur in Southeast Alaska, where Sitka black-tailed deer serve as the major food source for wolves. Wolf 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 is influenced by harvest levels, diseases, and prey availability

Genetic evidence suggests that as Alaska deglaciated following the most recent glacial maximum and animals colonized the newly exposed areas, wolves from the contiguous Western United States entered Southeast Alaska, likely following the northward expansion of black-tailed deer along the coast. Wolves in Interior Alaska are likely descended from animals that inhabited Beringia during the ice age, and wolves in Southeast are genetically distinctive from "continental" wolves.

Status, Trends, and Threats

Status

Alaska is home to an estimated 7,000 to 11,000 wolves. Wolves have never been threatened or endangered in Alaska. The food habits of the wolf often bring it into conflict with humans who in many parts of the world are also hunters of big game animals. Although the wolf has coexisted with big game animals for thousands of years, under some conditions the impact of predation contributes to local scarcities of game which arouse some people's concern. In most non-coastal systems with moose and caribou, wolves and bears together maintain game populations below levels at which their food supply would be damaged.

Various studies of wolf ecology have shown that the balance between wolf and prey populations can be disrupted. For example, severe winters in combination with wolf and bear predation can drastically reduce a big game population. Because many of Alaska's big game populations and their habitats are less productive than those in lower latitudes and because predators such as wolves and bears are common here, human hunters have to limit their harvest in many areas. In some areas wolf numbers may need to be controlled in order to avoid relatively long periods of prey scarcity which could result in little or no harvest for people and also low numbers of wolves and other furbearers.

Wolves are often seen and heard in most parts of Alaska by those willing to spend time in remote areas. The long term future of the wolf in Alaska is secure, and Alaska will probably continue to deal with the challenges related to the effects of wolf predation on big game populations for a long time.

The Status of Wolves in Southeast Alaska (PDF 57 kB) is a nine-page overview of the coastal wolves of the Alexander Archipelago. It summarizes past and current research including population ecology, taxonomy, current management considerations and the relevance of the Tongass Land Management Plan and the Endangered Species Act.

Fast Facts

  • Remarks
    Alaska is home to an estimated 7,000 to 11,000 wolves. Wolves have never been threatened or endangered in Alaska.
  • Other names
    Grey wolf, timber wolf.
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