Wolves, the last remnant of a wilderness animal that man has exterminated in most other states plays a volatile role here in Alaska, as a furbearer and big game species. Also, here in Alaska wolves compete with man for its ungulate prey (moose and caribou) which are a valuable food source for humans and wolves alike. The wolf is often described by using subjective, anthropomorphic terms such as villainous, cruel, and vicious. Yet, in contrast the domesticated wolf, dog, is a “man’s best friend”, considered loyal, playful and intelligent. The wolf is likely all of these.
Although the wolf is similar in appearance to a large husky sled dog, it is lankier and has longer legs, larger feet, and a narrower chest. The wolf has a large, heavy skull and large teeth. The color variation ranges from almost pure black to nearly white with every shade of gray between. Wolves in the Arctic tend to be larger and lighter in color. The wolf has one annual molt in late spring. The new, short summer pelage grows into the long, silky winter coat. The under fur grows during the autumn.
Demand for wolf furs, for use in parka hoods, is high, and a good pelt may bring $250 to as much as $500. A large male wolf may measure slightly over 6 feet in total length and stand almost 3 feet high at the shoulders. Adult wolves weigh between 85 to 115 pounds with some exceptionally large ones reaching 130 pounds. Females tend to weigh 10 to 15 pounds less than males. Juvenile females become sexually mature at two years of age, but the males do not reach sexual maturity until the third year. The oestrous period lasts for about a month in late winter, but the females are only in heat for the last five days of the period. The peak of the mating season is from about late February to mid-March (the mating season is earlier farther south). The gestation period is about 63 days and in Alaska the litters vary greatly but average about 6 pups. Females ordinarily produce a litter every year and mature females tend to produce larger litters. The female possesses eight teats in two rows. At birth the pups are blind and pug-nosed but by 12 days the eyes are open, the ears become erect, and they can move about the den. Both parents care for the young and will mate for life or as long as both remain alive.
When the pups are about two months old, they usually are moved from the natal den to another summer den for reasons of sanitation and perhaps better hunting. Food becomes more plentiful during the northern summer. The annual population maximum for lemmings, voles, Arctic hare, moose and caribou (calves) coincide with the wolves need for extra food. Wolves can run up to 28 miles per hour over a short distance and have incredible endurance for longer distances but their long-legged prey can out run them in a straight race. Wolves possess a very keen sense of smell and acute hearing. Their eyesight is less keen, from a distance they can see objects moving but cannot tell what they are until a scent is picked up. The wolf’s howl – a long guttural, quavering wail, is the “call” we are most familiar with but they also voice various emotions with barks, yelps, whines and snarls. Wolves have a highly developed social structure, and commonly operate as a pack, typically a family group of parents and pups and often several members of earlier litters. Adults teach the young to hunt and kill. These great wild predators do exactly what they have to do or they die.
The wolf pack occupies a fixed home range around the den, which may be anywhere from 100 to 260 square miles. The pack may split up to hunt but rejoin again later. Sometimes wolves travel singly, simply living alone. They will migrate following the caribou in spring. The density of wolves in an area varies depending upon the availability of prey. In primeval times the wolf was found all over North America, today, the master hunter is restricted mainly to the North, the tundra and the taiga.