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Fauna Series No. 5








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Grizzly Bear

Red Fox

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Fauna of the National Parks — No. 5
The Wolves of Mount McKinley
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MOOSE (Alces gigas) occur over a large part of Alaska. Mount McKinley National Park lies along one edge of the vast interior moose range. In the park they are found inside the north and east boundaries, and for some distance up along the streams which are bordered by fringes of timber. The moose are not confined to the timber but are frequently found in willows far beyond timber.

In one trip along the north boundary in January 1941, I found tracks plentiful in each strip of spruces and willows bordering the streams and in the many draws between the main streams. Tracks also were seen in some draws grown up in willow above the spruce timber. On this trip 20 moose were seen between the railroad and Wonder Lake on the outward journey and 5 more were seen on the return trip through the interior of the park. There have been no extensive counts on which to base an estimate of the number of moose in the park. From my general observations I would estimate that they totalled some where between two and three hundred.

bridge across Teklanika River
Figure 51: Bridge across Teklanika River. Cathedral Mountain on the left. Igloo Mountain on the right. The wooded area is permanent habitat for a few moose. [September 1939.]

Usually the snow is not deep enough on the moose range to greatly hamper the movements of the moose or to encourage yarding. A few trails were noted, but generally the moose were found traveling where they pleased. They are often seen alone or in groups of two or three, but on one occasion in January seven bulls were seen together and three more bulls were in a group a short distance away, and in November four cows and a yearling were banded together. In 1932, during a period when the snow was exceptionally deep and crusted. groups of 15 and 18 were reported on McKinley River.


The rut begins in early September and continues 3 or 4 weeks. In 1939, the first rutting activity was noted on September 5. On that date a lone cow which I was watching suddenly became alert and gazed intently southward toward a large bull which was approaching. His antlers were freshly cleaned of velvet and still bloody. The cow ran into the woods while the bull was still about 200 yards away and he followed her at a swinging trot.

The young are born in late May. Frequently there are twins. Of 16 cows, known to be different individuals, which were followed by calves, 9 were followed by a single calf, 7 by twins. This ratio is based on too small a sample to be taken as the average, but it shows that there is much twinning. The ratio of twins was much higher than at Isle Royale, Mich. (Murie 1934), where few were observed.

Food Habits

The chief food of the moose in Mount McKinley National Park, winter and summer, is willow. In winter, twigs up to a quarter of an inch in diameter are eaten; in summer, the leaves are stripped off the twigs, but many twigs are also utilized. Some dwarf birch was regularly browsed in winter. Aspen and cottonwood are eaten but these species occur sparingly. White birch, a palatable moose food that is abundant in much of interior Alaska, is rather rare in the park and hence is not even a minor food item.

In Wyoming and in some of the Eastern States and Canada, moose in winter feed extensively on conifers such as Douglas fir, balsam, and ground hemlock, but in Mount McKinley National Park the only common conifer is the spruce and it is extremely low in palatability. On Isle Royale, Mich., some spruce was eaten by moose, undoubtedly because of the shortage of winter food. No spruce was found eaten in Mount McKinley National Park.

In summer, tender grasses and sedges are eaten to a certain extent and no doubt various herbs are also taken at this time. Moose also seek the small ponds where they feed on submerged vegetation.

History of the Moose in Mount McKinley National Park

Moose are said to have been plentiful in the park prior to the period (about 1920) when the Alaska Railroad was being constructed. It is said that the moose in the eastern part of the park were reduced by market hunters who were at that time, and for a period preceding the coming of the railroad, hunting sheep and other game animals. Indians are reported to have hunted moose north of the park. I have no records indicating a reduction in moose numbers in the western part of the park at that time, although there may have been some decrease there too. Hunting need not be especially heavy to reduce a moose population.

In 1922 and 1923 moose were considered scarce in the park. I saw none in the Savage River region at that time, although a few were known to be present between Savage River and the railroad. In 1927 they were considered scarce in the eastern section hut more plentiful to the west. In 1928 a general increase of moose was reported in the eastern part of the park and along the north border.

The unusually deep and crusted snow in the spring of 1932 caused some reduction in the population. Ranger John Rumohr, who at the time was freighting mountain-climbing equipment and supplies to the base of Mount McKinley for a climbing party, told me that he found six or seven moose carcasses along the trail. Apparently the animals had died from malnutrition for they were exceedingly thin, "little more than skin and bones." One moose still alive was so weak that it could hardly stand and the next time Ranger Rumohr passed that way it was dead. The Superintendent's reports for that year tell of the hide being worn off the legs of the moose below the knees and that each track was covered with blood. The moose could probably have negotiated the deep snow but the hard crust was disastrous. That spring many moose must have succumbed to the elements. But in spite of these losses moose were still present in fair numbers and the next year were reported to be increasing. During the last 10 years it appears that a satisfactory number of moose have been present in the park.

Moose-Wolf Relationships

Ranger John Rumohr reported that in January 1940 he had seen tracks in the snow which plainly told the story of an attack of five wolves on a bull moose. The snow was much trampled but no blood signs were observed. One prong of a horn had been broken off. The wolves had given up a bad job, for their trail pointed west while the moose had wandered off to the east.

cow moose and calf
Figure 52: A cow moose with newborn calf, which, in an unknown manner, had suffered a broken leg. [Sanctuary River, June 3, 1939.]

Lee Swisher said that twice he had seen tracks in the snow which showed that wolves had worried a moose. In one case quite a large area had been trampled. He thought that the wolves had done this mainly in sport. Once a cow moose was seen in summer with hind legs bruised and wounded. He thought the moose may have fought off wolves. Her calf, however, was unhurt.

John F. Stanwell-Fletcher (1942) who made a number of observations on wolves in British Columbia, states that in December as the snow deepened, wolf trails were seen which "usually led through the forests to a moose-yard or its vicinity. But there was little snow under these trees, and the moose was seldom attacked, for its hoofs are sharp and deadly when it has firm footing. By the first of January, Indian trappers began to report small and large packs of wolves. All of these were seen traveling along the edges of lakes. They were in groups of from 4 to 31, moving slowly and in single file. By the end of January, with 6 to 8 feet of snow, the wolves began to hunt moose in earnest, Deeper snow beneath erstwhile sheltering trees forced the moose to travel farther for food, and in deep snow they were easy prey for the wolves. Within an area of 5 square miles just north of us, seven moose were killed by wolves during the winter of 1938-39. Only the moose, whose great weight forces him to travel with bent forelegs used as snowshoes, can be hunted successfully. That the wolf's food is not easily obtained even then, is evident when one follows a trail in the snow. We have the skull and skin of a large black dog-wolf which was found alive with broken ribs and leg bones, underneath a tree. Surrounded by moose tracks, blood patches and moose hair, the wolf had been crippled in a great battle. Similar cases were frequently reported by Indians and apparently usually occurred when the wolf had attacked the moose alone."

Apparently the moose killed in this area were under a great disadvantage because of the deep snow. Possibly food was also scarce or hard to get and the moose were consequently somewhat weakened. It would be highly significant to know the age and condition of the moose killed by the wolves, for possibly they were in a weakened state when killed. In the Mount McKinley National Park the snow depth is usually not great enough to hinder the moose as it does in the part of British Columbia referred to by Stanwell-Fletcher. But even in the latter region, where wolves which, were reported common were killing the moose, it appeared that moose were not at all scarce.

Wolves perhaps worry many moose which fight them off with such vigor that they are unwilling to expose themselves to the deadly hoofs. However, if any sign of faltering is shown, due to old age, food shortage, or disease, the wolves would no doubt quickly become aware of it, and one would expect them to become more persistent in their attack in hope of wearing down the animal. Moose which are actually known to have been killed by wolves should be closely examined to determine their condition. Unfortunately in many cases the evidence is destroyed.

Granting that adult moose are difficult prey for wolves, one might suspect that young calves would he quite susceptible to wolf attack. However, a cow with a calf is a formidable creature and if molested by wolves would probably put up a vigorous fight to protect her young. I know of one case in which two Huskies, the size of wolves, attacked a cow with a calf. She held her ground beside her newly born calf and drove the dogs away. Nevertheless, we would expect that occasionally a calf would fall prey to wolves.

Although no precise data on survival of calves were obtained, it appeared that many calves were surviving in Mount McKinley National Park. More than half the cows seen, omitting known duplications, were followed by calves. Some interesting observations on calf survival in the ranges of the different wolf families were made.

In an area inhabited by a family of wolves on Savage River a cow and her twin calves were seen on August 14, 1940. She had raised them in an area where wolves traveled daily. During the winter tracks of calves were seen regularly in this general region.

At Igloo Creek a cow moose lived the year round in an area about 5 or 6 miles along the highway. Much of the time her wanderings were confined to an area about 2 miles across. On May 29, 1940, this cow was seen with two calves a day or two old. During the summer this family was frequently seen. It was seen in November and at various times during the winter and spring. The group often fed close to the the road which was used regularly as a highway by the 12 East Fork wolves. The wolves sometimes sniffed at the moose tracks on the road but did not follow them. On May 18, 1941, almost a year after their birth, the calves were still with the cow. At this time they were feeding together, but the mother made frequent rushes at the yearlings to drive them away. They tried to remain near her but she no longer wanted them, for she was expecting another family. Later, on June 6, she appeared with her new single calf. The calf was still with her in August when I left the park, and the two yearlings were seen several times during the summer. Thus, in the heart of the wolf country along a much-traveled wolf highway the twins had survived, and another calf had passed the most critical stage in its life.

In 1940 another cow had a single calf on Teklanika River, not far from the point on Igloo Creek where the above-mentioned cow had her twins. Tracks of a cow and calf were seen as late as February, so here also a calf was surviving along the highway which was used by the wolves.

The relationship between wolves and moose is perhaps best shown by the fact that the moose increased in the park about the time the wolves became common, and have since held their own although the wolves have remained common. In the region north of the park. according to trappers, there has been a pronounced increase in moose in the last 4 years. This has been attributed to a decrease in hunting. ln this region there are many wolves in winter. Greater numbers of moose also have been reported in sections east of the park on Moody Creek.

An old-timer stated that between 1898 and 1903 moose and wolves were abundant on Stewart River. He was sure that moose could survive in large numbers in the presence of a large wolf population. He said wolves were to be heard every night and that moose were so plentiful that people had all the meat they wanted.

In Mount McKinley National Park and adjacent areas a satisfactory moose population is maintaining it self in the presence of many wolves.

Condition of Moose Range

An examination of the moose range along Igloo Creek revealed that the browsing on the willows had resulted in a rather uniform condition of broomed tips. Since only a few moose live in the area, this amount of feeding sign was not anticipated. Although this range is in good condition, these observations suggest how readily a moose range can be overbrowsed. After viewing exceptionally overbrowsed ranges on Isle Royale, Mich., and in the Yellowstone region of Wyoming, it is especially gratifying to see a moose range not overutilized. The moose in Mount McKinley National Park could still increase some what without injury to the range, but a heavy increase of population would not be desirable.

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Last Modified: Thurs, Dec 20 2001 10:00:00 pm PDT

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