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Fauna Series No. 3







Faunal Position

Life Zones







Fauna of the National Parks — No. 3
Birds and Mammals of Mount McKinley National Park
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Vulpes kenaiensis [MERRIAM]

GENERAL APPEARANCE.—The Kenai fox is the size of a water spaniel. Its general color is pale red which becomes bright rusty red above. The dark brown stripe down the front of each leg and the same dark coloration on the outside of the ears appear black when the animal is seen in the field. The tail is large, decidedly bush, and has a conspicuous white tip. The cross, silver and black foxes are merely color phases of the red fox. Length, 50 inches; tail, 16 inches; hind foot, 7 inches; ear, 4 inches.

IDENTIFICATION.—Their reddish color makes these animals quite conspicuous. When the fox is seen running the bushy tail which is about half the length of the animal's body is held in a horizontal position. The call note of this fox is a characteristic coughlike, muffled bark.

DISTRIBUTION.—Red foxes are abundant in McKinley Park because of the protection they receive there. Food in the form of squirrels, rabbits, mice and ptarmigan, is sufficient to support a large fox population. In the month of June we located half a dozen fox dens containing young. Two of these dens which had been used for many seasons were close to the main highway and visitors to the park were thus afforded an excellent opportunity to study "Reynard" at home. Two dens were found on the Sanctuary River above the bridge; two others were located beside the highway at the East Fork of the Toklat River.

HABITS.—Red foxes forage about during broad daylight, even at midday. On June 1, at 11 o'clock in the morning while I was standing motionless watching a bird, a large male fox came trotting along down the trail. He came up to within 50 yards of me, paused a moment and then, after stopping at a spruce tree, trotted away as contentedly as a dog does in his own barnyard. On July 9, 1926, at 9 o'clock in the morning we surprised three adult red foxes that were hunting together. When we first sighted the foxes over the brow of a hill, they were not more than 100 feet distant. In a few minutes they were almost out of sight; each was headed in a different direction over the open tundra.

We found that breeding dens of foxes in the McKinley region were usually located in sandy knolls that afforded easy digging and sunny south-facing exposures (fig. 47). At each den there were from 4 to 10 large burrows. These burrows were 8 or 10 inches in diameter and each was connected underground with the other. That there was intercommunication was proved repeatedly for a fox pup would disappear down one burrow and would reappear suddenly at another burrow entrance perhaps 20 feet from the place of disappearance.

breeding den
Figure 47.—This breeding den of the Kenai red fox, located on a warm sandy knoll,
was used by foxes in both 1926 and 1932.
Photograph taken June 18, 1932, Savage River. W L. D. No. 2971.

As soon as the fox pups are able to scramble about to some extent they venture out a few feet from the burrow entrance and romp together and play as if at hide-and-go-seek. In doing this they make well-defined little trails through the grass which average 4 inches in width and which lead from one hiding place to the next.

We found other beds and romping places in the tall grass and by watching with binoculars learned that during the midforenoon the young foxes spent considerable time stretched out sunning themselves in such beds.

On July 8, 1932, a red fox den was visited which was located on a high south-facing bank about 2 miles beyond the Toklat River bridge. There were four reds, one brown, and one cross fox pup in this litter. Although these young foxes were nearly half grown they were so curious that they came out of their den and looked about cautiously (fig. 48). We climbed up and sat down a hundred feet to one side of the den. The fox pups came quietly out. They advanced under cover of a thicket of willows until they had approached to within 10 feet of us in their effort to discover what manner of being had intruded their home sanctuary. One pup stood in an opening with his tail raised sniffing the air many times in an effort to get our scent (fig. 49). Fresh tracks of a large timber wolf which had been made since the previous day's rain were found leading down a ridge directly to this fox den. Investigation showed that the wolf had visited all of the numerous entrances but had made only a slight attempt to dig the fox pups out of their underground shelter.

Kenai red fox pups
Figure 48.—Five out of a litter of six Kenai red fox pups near the entrance to their den.
Photograph taken July 8, 1932, Toklat. W. L. D. No. 2609.

Kenai red fox
Figure 49.—One Kenai red fox came within 10 feet of us, sniffing the air in an attempt to get our scent.
Photograph taken July 8, 1932, Toklat. W. L. D. No. 2673.

On May 21, 1926, we made our first visit to the fox den on Savage River near the main transportation company's camp and found, from numerous small footprints in the sand, that the young were able to come to the entrance of the den (fig. 50). Upon our close approach, we heard the mother who was in the burrow give three low warning cough notes to her pups and, although we retired to a distance and waited an hour, none of the foxes ventured out. On June 4, one of the fox pups stumbled into a squirrel trap that was set near the den. This young fox was about one-third grown. It was covered with soft, downy underfur through which protruded a few long overhairs. These were scattered over the head, neck, and sides. On June 11, the mother fox of this brood was seen close at hand as she hunted for meadow mice along the river bottom. On this date she was extremely thin and ragged, presumably from nursing a litter of young.

Figure 50.—Numerous small footprints at the entrance to their den indicated that the Kenai red fox pups were able to walk.
Photograph taken June 18, 1932, Savage River. W. L. D. No. 2970.

On June 16, another brood of young foxes was found at the margin of a lake near the Sanctuary River. Two young foxes about two-thirds grown, one a red and the other a cross, romped and played about the mouth of the den.

By July 8, the fox pups in the den on Savage River were old enough to leave their den and to follow their mother about on foraging expeditions far afield. Careful watch showed that they did not return to the home den to live after this date. By the first of August the young foxes were nearly grown and, although able to forage on their own account continued to follow their mother about for some time (fig. 51).

Kenai red fox
Figure 51.—A nearly grown Kenai red fox. Although it was photographed in July, this fox was one of a precocious litter and represents the normal growth as of August 1.
Photograph taken July 8, 1932. W. L. D. No. 2674.

As far as we could determine, the main burden of providing food for the pups fell on the mother. The father fox usually hunted far afield. This may have accounted for our failure to see him bring home food to Isis mate or to the young.

An excellent index to the food of foxes at this season of the year was had by examining remains of birds and mammals that we found scattered about the several fox dens. In enumerating such material we found that the remains of Mackenzie varying hares were most numerous and that the remains (ends of wings) of willow ptarmigan were almost as numerous. Within a hundred feet of one fox den we found the remains of 25 rabbits and 20 ptarmigan. Nearly all of the ptarmigan were males. The wing tips of a few Alaska longspurs, Gambel sparrows and tree sparrows were also found at the fox den. With the aid of binoculars I watched the red foxes as they hunted and found that meadow mice were captured more frequently than any other mammal. These mice were swallowed whole with little mastication and as a result their remains were found only in the fox feces. Young Nushagak ground squirrels were also captured in considerable numbers by the foxes. Among the larger mammals we found that a Dall sheep which had been killed and buried by a snow avalanche at the head of Savage River had been eaten by foxes when the melting of the snow brought the carcass to the surface.

On the Sanctuary River on June 16 we found the horns and skeletons of two large caribou bulls. They had gotten their antlers so firmly locked in a fight that they had been unable to pull apart and both animals had succumbed. This episode had transpired during the month of October, previous to our visit the following June. Fox droppings about the caribou skeletons showed that the red foxes had been quick to take advantage of this windfall and had licked the bones clean (fig. 64). On July 8,1932, I found where the front leg of a young caribou which had recently died had been dragged by a fox 400 yards to its den.

As has been said, the highly prized silver and cross foxes are merely individuals of varying color which are likely to be found in any litter of red fox pups.

Although both hunting and trapping are forbidden in Mount McKinley National Park, during the winter of 1925-26 an enterprising trapper operated outside and along the northern boundary. He caught $1,500 worth of fur, mostly foxes of the finer variety. Thus it will be seen that the park acts as a breeding reservoir for foxes from which a surplus travels over the boundaries of the park each winter and is caught by trappers.

Canis latrans [SAY]

GENERAL APPEARANCE.—The Northern coyote is the largest of its kind. It is about the size of a slender collie dog. The tail is black tipped, large, and bushy, and less than half the length of the body. The ears are long and pointed. In coloration the coyote is grayish above and buffy on the under parts. It has a high-pitched yapping or quavering bark. A single coyote may so modulate its voice as to lead a person listening to believe that several coyotes are all howling together. Males: length, 49 inches; tail, 16 inches; hind foot, 8.3 inches.

IDENTIFICATION.—The small tracks, slender build, long ears, and high pitched broken call of the coyote cannot be easily confused with the large tracks, stocky build, short ears, and sonorous howl of the timber wolf. The coyote is larger, shaggier, and grayer than the red fox. Its tail is black-tipped and is relatively smaller than that of the red fox which is white-tipped.

DISTRIBUTION.—Coyotes of several species are found over most of western North America. In recent years the coyote seems to have extended its range in the McKinley region and become more abundant. With the increase in coyotes there has been an increase in the wolf so that common factors may possibly be operating on both populations. It is thought by some that the coyote extended its range into the interior of Alaska by following up the construction camps along the Alaska Railroad, building of which was completed in 1923.

My earliest record in McKinley Park is 1926. For several days during the winter of that year, a coyote remained about the home of John and Paula Anderson, at Wonder Lake. Some weeks later a coyote, probably the same individual, was killed by Edward Gern on the East Fork of the Toklat River. I later examined the skull of this coyote. Sheldon, who spent about a year in the region in 1907-8, makes no mention of the coyote.

HABITS.—The pioneering spirit is strong in the coyote. In 1932, upon my second visit to Mount McKinley National Park I found that the coyote had increased in numbers until it was able to compete successfully with the Mount McKinley timber wolf and to actually invade its territory. In a similar way the coyote was found to be a serious competitor of other native carnivores for food, particularly to the Kenai red fox and to the Mount McKinley wolverine—both of which are important native members of the park fauna.

On May 25, 1932, I visited the main mountain sheep lick on Ewe Creek and found that although sheep were plentiful on the cliffs near the lick, their tracks showed that they had been afraid, presumably because of the presence of the coyotes, to cross the half-mile of open rolling ground that lay between them and the lick. Near the lick clear evidence was found that a coyote had recently run down and killed a yearling sheep.

Earlier in the spring when heavy snows and a frozen snow-crust drove the Dall sheep down out of the mountains to the lower rolling foothills, the coyotes, which were able to travel on the crust, had killed many of the sheep because of the fact that the sheep could not travel on the crust and had broken through and floundered in the deep snow.

On June 16, 1932, I watched a band of 80 ewes trying to cross Jenny Creek from their winter to their summer range. Many of these ewes were heavy with unborn lambs and all were very nervous. I watched them make several unsuccessful attempts to cross the valley. Every time they reached a certain area which was covered with low brush they became frightened and wildly stampeded back to the protecting cliffs. The cause of the trouble was found to be, apparently, a large gray coyote which was hiding in the brush. From this vantage point he tried to rush out and capture the passing sheep.

With the coyote menace to Dall sheep is the possibility that the coyote may displace other native carnivores. We cannot state with certainty that outside of Alaska a half dozen wolves are to be found in all of the remaining national parks and only two of these parks report wolverines as definitely present. Therefore the wolves and wolverines of the Mount McKinley region greatly enrich the general fauna of the whole national park system and should be treasured accordingly.

Although future information may modify the attitude of the National Park Service toward the coyote in Mount McKinley National Park, the present policy is expressed on pages 47 and 48 of Fauna of the National Parks of the United States No. 1, published in May 1932. Briefly this is as follows:

The spread of the coyote is a difficult and insidious problem. The reasons for its sudden spread over vast new territories are too controversial to be discussed here, but this outward movement is certainly associated with the changes which human populations have wrought. In Mount McKinley National Park its invasion is looked upon with great alarm.

Mr. Stokely Ligon's analysis of the problem, which applied here very well is essentially this: The coyote is beneficial in its own range and habitat; but when it gets outside of its own range, as it has done many times, it becomes a different animal and is destructive.

The coyote, where it is native to the area, has as much right to exist as any other member of the park fauna, but in relatively small areas such as Mount McKinley, where the wildlife is of great importance, it is impossible to preserve that wildlife and allow the encroachment of exotic predatory species or abnormal numbers of the native ones from the outside.

The logical course of action seems to be this: If coyotes are present in a park in greater numbers than formerly but give no indications of unusual damage, they should not be molested. We do not know enough, as yet, about the causes of their increase to justify steps against it. In Mount McKinley, where the animal life is of great importance and where the coyote does not belong, every safe step should be taken against this encroachment as an exotic and an alien.

George M. Wright has pointed out that such control measures of the coyotes will protect the native wolf, wolverine, and red fox. As control measures in the proper hands will he restricted to the methods described above and will be absolutely selective, the native carnivores will be adequately safeguarded.

Canis pambasileus [ELLIOT]

GENERAL APPEARANCE.—The Mount McKinley timber wolf is about the size of a very large police dog. Its body is more than twice as long as its thick bushy tail. Generally it is gray in coloration but variations from black to light cream color are common. The ears are short and erect and are not as long nor as pointed as are the ears of the coyote. Males: Length, 66 inches; tail, 18 inches; hind foot, 11 inches.

IDENTIFICATION.—This species is the largest of the Canidae or dog tribe. Their short stubby ears distinguish the wolf pups at once from coyote pups, which have tall pointed ears. The call of a real timber wolf is along-drawn-out, low-pitched resonant howl, "Ow—ooo—o-o-o." It resembles the mournful howling of certain Alaskan sled dogs, but it should never be confused with the shrill broken yapping or barking of the coyote.

On July 8, 1932, at Toklat I measured the track of a large wolf. It was a full impression made in firm mud and I found it to be 5-1/8 inches long and 5-1/8 inches wide. The tracks of small timber wolves cannot always be distinguished from those made by sled dogs.

DISTRIBUTION.—Under primitive conditions timber wolves were present over much of the northern half of North America. Out of all of our national parks in the western United States is is doubtful whether more than two of these parks now contain any timber wolves. Mount McKinley, our largest "wilderness" park, is the only national park that has an ample breeding stock of timber wolves.

HABITS.—At 10 o'clock in the evening on July 26, 1926, as we returned to our base camp on Savage River, we found two timber wolves searching for scraps of food that had been thrown out. They watched us closely and would not allow us to approach closer than a hundred yards of them. At this distance their stubby ears distinguished them from coyotes and their furtive behavior distinguished them from sled dogs. Later in the night a wolf was heard to howl repeatedly. This call note was a low-pitched resonant and, as has already been said, long-drawn-out howl that tapered off in volume gradually toward the end. The distant mellow call of a timber wolf is one of the most soul-stirring sounds to be heard in the far north.

In 1932 I found that wolves were much more numerous and much tamer than they were in 1926. In fact, in 1932 one or more wolves were seen on each trip that I made out into the park.

On July 11, near Little Stony Creek, Mrs. Dixon and Mrs. Edmunds watched a timber wolf chase a young caribou. At 5 o'clock in the afternoon a yearling caribou came running and panting down the little valley. It was hard pressed by a large black timber wolf. When first seen the wolf was about 60 yards behind the caribou and was gaining rapidly on it. Each time that my wife and Mrs. Edmunds shouted, the wolf would stop for a moment, but the caribou kept steadily on down the winding valley. The wolf continued to gain by "cutting across lots", so to speak, while the caribou followed the winding stream. When last seen the caribou was spent and staggering and the wolf was closing the gap. Whether or not the caribou was brought to bay and was then able to ward off the attack of the wolf was not determined.

At times during the winter when food is scarce the adult rams wander out upon the rolling hills in search of food and fall prey to the wolves. In hunting Dall sheep the wolf usually gets above the band of sheep and waits until some of them wander away from the safety of cliffs or other rugged broken ground. Then the wolf creeps forward and makes a quick dash down the slope endeavoring to catch one of the sheep before it can reach the safety of the nearby crags. Sheldon (1930, p. 315) records nine instances where wolves hunted sheep in this manner and he says "I saw no signs of any other method of hunting." The wolves, Sheldon observed, apparently had not been very successful, for he goes on to say, "There was no evidence that a wolf had caught a sheep..."

On June 1, 1932, I examined and photographed a large Dall ram which, judging from tooth marks made in both flesh and bones, indicated that the ram had been caught unawares while in the open and had been captured and killed by a timber wolf (fig. 52). The carcass was well preserved. The teeth of this ram showed that he was in full prime and vigor and the annual growth rings on his horns indicated that he was about 8 years old.

Dall sheep
Figure 52.—Remains of an 8-year-old Dall sheep ram which, in full prime and vigor of life, had been caught on an open ridge away from cliffs and killed and eaten by timber wolves.
Photograph taken June 1, 1932, Sanctuary Divide. W. L. D. No. 2699.

It has been our experience at Mount McKinley that wolves normally capture Dall sheep by hidden approach and sudden surprise rather than by means of a long chase. Ranger Lee Swisher, in a letter of November 21, 1932, states: "From my observations of mountain sheep and caribou killed by wolves during the winter I have yet to find a case where the wolves chased their victims more than 200 yards. Last winter I compared the distance of leaps made by an old ram and of the wolf that caught him. For a short distance their leaps were approximately the same (16 feet). When the old ram struck a patch of smooth ice he lost out in a few jumps."

I have found that in Mount McKinley Park the mountain sheep become excited and nervous when any person gets above them or between them and the protecting cliffs. On the other hand, once they have gained the safety of some rocky wall they will stand or even lie down and permit a person to approach them quite closely from below.

Prior to 1926 no wolves were known to remain or to breed in the park. Breeding dens are usually to be found located at low elevations in some enlarged fox burrow or in a warm sheltered cave at the base of a south-facing cliff. On June 12, 1932, at a den near Double Mountain, I kept close watch over a litter of four pups. Food remains at this den indicated that several mountain sheep had been eaten. Observations showed that the mother wolf had carried food as far as 12 miles to her pups.

At the present time the wolf is common in the park. Probably no other animal will give to the park visitor the wilderness thrill that comes from a glimpse of the wolf or a night pierced by its lone howl.

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