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Fauna Series No. 5








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Grizzly Bear

Red Fox

Golden Eagle



Fauna of the National Parks — No. 5
The Wolves of Mount McKinley
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Physical Characteristics

I WAS A LITTLE UNCERTAIN about the identification of the first wolf I saw in Mount McKinley National Park. I was not sure whether it was a wolf or a coyote. The animal was some distance away, on a ridge parallel to the one from which I was watching, so that size was not a good criterion for identification and the color was about the same as that of a coyote. But it was noted that the legs appeared exceptionally long and prominent, and that there was something about the hind quarters which was peculiar, giving the animal just a suggestion of being crouched. On the slope it appeared more clumsy in its actions than a coyote. Its ears were more prominent than I had expected in a wolf. These characteristics were later found to be typical. The behavior of this wolf was of special interest so I checked my identification by an examination of the tracks which were approximately 5 inches long. After becoming familiar with the wolves, there generally was no difficulty in making identifications but still on a few occasions a distant gray wolf could have been mistaken for a coyote.

There are some northern sled dogs which resemble wolves closely enough so that it would be hard to identify them correctly if they were running wild. Some years ago I drove a sled dog which was so similar to a wolf that even on a leash it could be mistaken for one. However, this animal was supposed to be a quarter-breed wolf. The wolf is lankier and has longer legs than the average sled dog. His chest is narrower so that the front legs are much closer together than those of the usual broad chested sled dog.

There is much individual variation in wolves, especially in regard to color. They are usually classified as white, black, and gray, but among these types there is an infinite amount of variation. The wolves referred to as gray are sometimes a brownish color similar to that of a coyote. One type of animal is whitish except for a black mantle over the hack and neck. In some, the fur on the neck is strikingly different from the rest of the coat. Some gray wolves have a striking silver mane. The tail is tipped with black. The black wolves often have a sprinkling of rusty or yellowish guard hairs which create a grizzled effect, and many are characterized by a vertical light line just back of the shoulder. Further description of their colors is given in the discussion of a family of wolves living at East Fork (see p. 25).

The black and gray wolves were present in about equal numbers in Mount McKinley National Park. Dr. E. W. Nelson (1887), reporting on his sojourn in Alaska from 1877 to 1881, states that at the head of the Yukon River the black wolves predominated and that the gray wolves were most abundant near the Bering Sea. I do not know if there is any dominance of color in different regions of Alaska at the present time but I expect that in most regions both color types are present.

I know of few weights of Alaska wolves but judge that the adult male in good flesh generally weighs approximately 100 pounds. Estimates have been made as high as 150 pounds and more. There is much variation in size, so that exceptionally large animals could be expected. Judging from the wolves that I saw, the females are smaller than the males.


wolf tracks
Figure 2: Tracks of front foot (at bottom) and hind foot (at top) of a wolf in soft mud. The front foot track is always noticeably broader than that of the hind foot. [East Fork River, August 26, 1940.]

The tracks of a wolf can easily be distinguished from those of a coyote by their large size, and the long stride, but probably would often be indistinguishable from those of the large northern sled dog.

The front foot measures larger than the hind foot, being definitely broader and usually slightly longer. The width of the track, of course, varies according to the speed at which the wolf is traveling. When the animal is running fast or galloping the foot spreads considerably.

Tracks of a pup, on August 26, when it was about 3-1/2 months old, measured as follows; Front foot, 4 inches long, 2-7/8 inches wide; hind foot, 3-1/2 inches long, 2-5/8 inches wide.

The measurements of a 4-1/2-month-old captive wolf pup (see page 45), a sister of the above wild pup, on September 24, were as follows: Front foot, 4-3/4 inches long, 3-3/4 inches wide; hind foot, 4-1/2 inches long, 3 inches wide.

The following measurements of tracks in moist mud are typical and show some of the variations. In most cases the animal had apparently been trotting.

Foot of animalLength Width


1Tracks of black female.

The pace of the wolf in walking and trotting on the level varies from 25 to 38 inches. In 7 inches of snow the pace measured between 27 and 30 inches. The pace of a track, in 6 inches of snow, probably made by a trotting animal, averaged 29 inches. A series of consecutive paces on a gravel bar measured 32, 34, 30, and 32 inches. In climbing a steep slope of about a 45-degree angle, in a few inches of snow, the pace of a band of wolves averaged about 16 inches. (By pace is meant the distance between the tracks of the two hind feet or the two front feet. A full stride would be twice the pace.)

In traveling through snow a band of wolves will often go single file, stepping in one set of tracks. The hind foot in such cases falls in the tracks of the front foot. At other times the hind foot may or may not fall in the track of the front foot. In order to avoid deep, soft snow the wolves often follow a hard packed drift or the edge of a road where the snow is more shallow.

Flecks of blood frequently seen in the trails in winter indicated that the wolves were subject to sore feet. In the case of the sled dog traveling in snow, especially in any kind of crusted snow, the hide on the toes is often worn off, sometimes causing the dog to limp considerably. If the crust is severe it may become necessary to protect the feet with moccasins. The feet of the wolves are probably affected by the snow in the same manner as are those of the sled dog, but possibly to a lesser degree. In summer a wolf would occasionally develop a limp and later recover.

tracks of five wolves
Figure 3: Tracks of five wolves crossing a river bar in the snow. [East Fork River, October 22, 1939.]

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