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By Lori Fox
Originally published Mar. 12, 2019
Odds are, even if you’ve lived in the Yukon your whole life, you’ve never seen a wolf.
The Yukon is home to 4,500 and 5,000 of these shy, elusive and mysterious animals, says Pete Knamiller, wolf biologist with Environment Yukon.
Wolves (Canis lupus), live in territorial hierarchical family units — packs — which “spend most of their time in close proximity with each other,” Knamiller says. Packs in the Yukon average around seven animals, although numbers are low as two and as high as 20 have been reported.
Home ranges for Yukon wolves can be anywhere from 500 square-kilometres to 2,000 sq. km in the Yukon, he says. This is a significantly larger amount of territory for a pack than in southern climates, because the overall prey density of the Yukon is lower — the higher the density of prey animals in an area, the smaller the range needs to be. In the Yukon, the primary diet of most wolf packs is moose.
“If there are abundant prey animals, then the ranges can be a lot smaller,” he says. “In the Yukon, we have a fairly low ungulate density.”
The “number one daily chore” for a wolf is “to find food” says Knamiller.
“It’s not as easy as wolves just finding a moose and taking it down,” however, Knamiller adds.
Hungry wolves will move about their territories — a wolf can cover up to 20 kilometres of rough backcountry ground a day by taking the “path of least resistance” Knamiller notes — and will check “prey pockets,” which are areas where wolves know moose like to hang out. Even if they encounter an animal, though, it might not be a suitable target.
“(A pack) may need to encounter a number of individual animals before they find one to eat,” Knamiller says. Even when they find one, the fight is “a lot more balanced” than many people realize, as wolves and moose have co-evolved together for millenial.
“Few people realize how difficult and risky this is” for wolves, Knamiller says.
An adult male moose can weigh up to 1,000 pounds (480 kilograms) and run up to 30 km per hour; the average wolf weighs between 80 and 100 lbs (35 and 45 kg). So for wolves, hunting a moose basically means taking down an animal which weighs more than the whole pack combined — that very much does not want to be food — with only their mouths (which, admittedly, are full of teeth, but still), an effort not totally unlike that of ancient humans hunting mammoths with nothing but spears. Wolves often accomplish this dangerous task in the dead of winter, in freezing temperatures, in deep snow, in the dark.
When they do manage a successful kill, wolves will proceed to gorge themselves, “sitting on the kill” until it is entirely devoured. It’s not unlike Thanksgiving holidays for humans; wolves will get up, waddle over to the kill, eat until they can’t eat anymore, waddle back over to their den and go to sleep until they’re ready to eat some more.
For a moose, this usually takes four to five days for an average-sized pack and more like two to three days for caribou. The pack takes some chill-out time to “digest,” usually a day or two, and then it’s off to try to find more prey to stalk, hunt, take down and kill, starting the process all over again, says Knamiller.
On average, a Yukon wolf pack takes a moose every week to 10 days, he says.
Those numbers fluctuate with the season, he notes, as wolves are “opportunistic hunters” and there is more variety of prey at different times of the year. Wolves love to eat beaver — they are slow and full of nutrient-rich fat — which make up to one-third of their diet during the summer, for example, although those numbers are not Yukon-specific. They will also scavenge carcasses, snap up rodents and even eat berries, in the right season.
A wolf’s life is dictated by an annual cycle of breeding and feeding. Females usually come into heat in March, although only the Alpha — the most dominant, highest ranking female — will mate. For this, she selects a male — the Alpha male — and together the pair not only actively breed but work together to keep the other pack members from breeding as well as a dedicated monogamous unit. When the pups are born in May — around 63 days after conception, similar to a dog — the whole pack will care for them, often with a beta acting as a “nanny” wolf.
Although this may seem unfair by human standards, this arrangement benefits the pack in a number of ways, says Knamiller. Not only are the Alpha wolves usually the most physically fit and intelligent pack members, they are often the best and most experienced hunters; if they couldn’t trust the pack to help care for their offspring communally, they wouldn’t be able to go out and hunt, meaning less for everyone to eat over all.
Moreover, as they are the best specimens and the most accomplished hunters, only allowing them to breed gives the next generation of the pack the best genetic hand to work with.
When the pups are born, they are blind, weighing about a pound, although after about 10 days they are able to walk around and come out of the den, says Knamillier. When they are ready to eat solid food, the pack brings them meat in the very handy pocket that is their bellies and regurgitate it for them to eat — dragging a whole dead moose through the bush is not practical or economical, energy wise, although they do bring bones and other goodies back for the pups to eat and play with.
“That’s often how you know you’ve stumbled on den-site,” says Knamiller. “There will be bones scattered all around.”
By the fall, the pups are mobile and, although they are unlikely to be good hunters at this stage. By winter, they are “watching and learning” the trade of hunting from the whole pack.
It is also around this time — late fall, early winter — that the pups from the previous year or two before begin to disperse in the hopes of forming their own packs — obviously they can’t just hang out and mate with their siblings. The pack size reduces, that season’s pups finishing growing into adult wolves over the winter, and come March the cycle begins all over again.
Regardless of how you feel about wolves — which are still, even here in the North, often maligned or an object of fear — there’s one thing you should always remember about them, says Knamiller; they’re way more scared of you than you are of them.
They are inherently shy, cautious animals, which is why they are rarely seen, even by experienced bush people.
In North America there have only been three recorded human deaths in the last one hundred years from wolves — you are infinitely more likely to die in a plane crash than to be attacked by a wolf, he notes.
Knamiller — who spends time with wolves in the wild and even handles them during collaring and research — says he has “never felt threatened by them.”
For more information about wolves in the Yukon, visit http://www.env.gov.yk.ca/animals-habitat/ mammals/wolf.php.