History of Wolves in Mount McKinley National Park
Wolves no doubt have been a part of the present Alaska fauna for hundreds of years. Fossil remains are present in the Pleistocene fauna and it is probable that the wolves have persisted in Alaska since that time. The wolf then is not a new animal finding its niche in the fauna, with the possibility of upsetting existing relationships or exterminating some species. It is true that the effects of man's activities may be such as to bring the wolf into new associations with the native fauna, but as yet man's activities have probably not altered conditions sufficiently to seriously change the natural relationships.
The history of the wolves in Mount McKinley National Park during the last 25 years is, in a general way, quite well known. There is also considerable information on the prevalence of the wolf in interior Alaska, although much of this information is conflicting. There is often a tendency to report a great increase of the animals if any are noted, so that during a period when wolves were much less numerous than at present there are many reports of their abundance and great increase. Sometimes the caribou, the principal wolf food, shifts its range and brings wolves along with it into new territory where they are noticed and commented upon. I suppose that the history of the wolves varies a little in different parts of interior Alaska but that the general pattern is similar throughout. Since there are 586,400 square miles in Alaska, and 3,030 square miles in Mount McKinley National Park, which lies near the center of the Territory, it can perhaps be assumed that in its broad aspects the status of the wolves in the park has corresponded rather closely with their status in interior Alaska as a whole.
According to E. W. Nelson (1887) wolves were plentiful over much of Alaska during his sojourn there from 1877 to 1881. At that time wolves were scarce along the west coast due to the absence of caribou. Previously, when the caribou were plentiful there, before the advent of modern firearms among the natives, the wolves were also abundant. In 1880 they were reported most numerous toward the headwaters of the Kuskokwim and Yukon Rivers, which coincides roughly with the limits of the caribou range. At St. Michael, Dr. Nelson examined several thousand wolf skins which were handled by the trading post, and he reported the presence of many wolves inland among the caribou.
Wolves were apparently still plentiful in the early 1900's, and I have no information indicating that they were scarce between 1881 and 1900. An old-timer told me that between 1898 and 1903 wolves were abundant on the Stewart River. Charles Sheldon (1930) found wolves in the Mount McKinley region in 1907 and 1908, but just how prevalent they were it is hard to say. He found little evidence of wolves among the sheep hills along the Toklat River, but found these animals "very abundant" among the caribou at the edge of the mountains on Toklat River. In one night the wolves completely devoured a caribou bull he had shot.
Some time after 1908 the wolf population in the Mount McKinley region and perhaps also in other parts of the interior of Alaska was considerably reduced, probably as a result of natural causes. An old-timer who had hunted sheep in the McKinley region in 1916 and 1917 told me that he saw no wolves or wolf tracks there at that time. In 1920 and 1921 O. J. Murie visited a number of localities in interior Alaska in his travels by dog team and found wolves absent or scarce in most localities. In a trip through Rainy Pass and into the Kuskokwim country in the spring of 1922 he saw no tracks, Mr. Joe Blanchell at Farewell Mountain on the north side of Rainy Pass said that wolves were formerly common in that locality but had now disappeared. There were caribou all through this area so ample wolf food was present. In the past, about 1916 and 1917, a few wolves had destroyed some of Mr. A. H. Twitchell's reindeer herd near Ophir but no wolves were reported in the locality in 1922. This region lies just to the west and north of Mount McKinley National Park.
One trip was made by O. J. Murie through the caribou country between Chatanika and Circle in the spring of 1921, and the Chatanika region was again visited in the fall. No sign of wolf was found in the spring, and in the fall only one was seen, and wolves were heard howling only once. Part of this region was used the year round by caribou. A year or two before wolves had been reported more plentiful.
In March and April 1921, O. J. Murie traveled by dog team from Fairbanks to Tanana Crossing but saw no wolf tracks en route. He found that although wolves were not abundant, they did occur in the upper Tanana region in somewhat greater numbers than they did in the Chena and Chatanika regions nearer Fairbanks, and other regions visited. The upper Tanana region was in habited by caribou at least for part of the year. In 1921 some wolves were reported on the north fork of the Forty Mile River.
On one trip which O. J. Murie and I made in the winter of 192223 we started from Nenana in November and traveled to Kokrines, where we visited a reindeer herd, crossed to Alatna, and traveled to the sheep hills in the Endicott Mountains at the head of the Alatna River; visited Bettles and Wiseman on the upper Koyukuk; came down the Chandalar River, where caribou were wintering, to the Yukon; continued to Fort Yukon and Circle, then west through the heart of the caribou country, arriving at Fairbanks on April 26. During the entire winter we saw not a single wolf track, which would indicate that wolves over much of interior Alaska were scarce at that time.
In 1922 and 1923 my brother and I spent considerable time among the sheep hills in Mount McKinley National Park. No tracks and no wolves were seen and none were reported by others.
In more recent years wolves have been more plentiful near Chatanika, where they had been so scarce from 1921 to 1923. During that period wolves had been even scarcer in Mount McKinley National Park.
In 1925, according to reports of the Superintendent, wolves had increased in Mount McKinley National Park to the extent that some tracks were seen in all parts of the park. [According to Soper (1942, p. 132) wolves began to increase in Wood Buffalo Park, Canada, about 1925 and since that time have continued to in crease.] In 1927 it was reported that the wolves were becoming more numerous. A band of 11 was noted by one of the rangers. From 1928 to the present time wolves have been reported each year as plentiful in the park. From the records available, it appears there were no large fluctuations in the population during the period from 1928 to 1941.
The increase of wolves in the park coincided with a general increase in interior Alaska. There are no data to show that wolves are more abundant in Mount McKinley National Park than they are in other favorable localities in interior Alaska. Robert Marshall (1939) found wolf sign common in the Endicott Mountains in 1939. Wolves were reported plentiful in the Wood River country in the fall of 1940.
Since the recovery of the population the actual number of wolves in the sheep hills of the park has never been accurately determined. Estimates vary from 50 to 100. The wide ranging of the wolves and their movements in and out of the park make it extremely difficult to conduct any accurate census. My work did not take me over all the park, but within the sheep hills I would estimate the number of wolves to be between 40 and 60, perhaps nearer the first figure.
To summarize, there have been two periods of wolf abundance and one of scarcity in Alaska in relatively recent years. Records available to me show that wolves were quite abundant in 1880, and probably from 1900 to 1908. Sufficient data, however, are not available to be sure of the exact status for the latter part of this period. Some time after 1908 the population declined and apparently wolves were generally scarce in 1916 and 1917 and up to about 1925, when they again increased. Since 1927 they have remained plentiful over much of interior Alaska. There is no doubt but that wolves were scarce during a period centering in the early 1920's and that since then they have increased and become common.