Wolfs (Canis lupus) live throughout the Arctic. The distribution of wolves has remained relatively constant over time, fluctuation in their population are due to food availability, and disease. They have a large home range that they will travel in search of food. Wolves are carnivores and feed on small rodents, caribou and sheep. They will scavenge on animals that have died of natural causes. Wolves will go long periods of time with little food and then gorge on one big feed. Wolves will often hunt in a pack. They seem to be more abundant when caribou are present.
Wolves breed in late winter and a female will have a litter of pups in May. Females will breed at 2 years of age and have an average of a half dozen pups. The pups will stay close to the den and travel in the valley for food. They will reach adult size in the first year and can be 140 lbs. at maturity. They are very social and will fight over a home range and kills. Due to this they have a high mortality rate and often die of natural causes (disease, malnutrition). There is little pressure in ANWR with trapping and sport hunting. Most are hunted incidentally while after sheep. I average hunters harvesting two a year. Their pelts will range from black to pure white. Mostly in the fall while hunting sheep we will often hear them howl as they hunt at night and we are sleeping up on a high ridge over a valley. Their tracks are found up and down most river bottoms. They are kind of ghostly and a lot of times will only be seen when they choose to be.
I have observed wolves hunting in a pack as the caribou come through. In this one instance a hunter and I observed 7 wolves spread out on different posts in a tight valley and bottle neck the migrating caribou down through a tight notch in the rocks. In the notch were 3 wolves and they were the killers. They stayed hidden and ambushed the caribou as they came through.
I have also observed in one instance a pack of wolves while I was sheep hunting in the area try to kill a grizzly cub. The pack of wolves surrounded a sow and cub close to the continental divide. The cub stayed between her mom’s legs and the mom held her ground. The wolves would run in and bite at the mom and try to get her to chase them. This would leave the cub exposed and another wolf would head in for the kill. The mom and cub knew this and stayed together swatting wolves off. At one point the mom stopped and nursed the cub while she kept the wolves back. Finally the wolves backed off. I observed this over a thirty minute period. I believe the wolves had already killed the other cub earlier in the year because the sow was well aware of their plan.
Gray wolves may be shades of gray, brown, black, or white. Wolves of all these colors roam the Refuge. A total of approximately 25-30 wolves, in some five packs, live on the Refuge’s North Slope east of the Canning River. The wolves are found primarily in the mountains and foothills along major rivers.
The makeup of wolf packs on the Refuge’s North Slope varies. In summer, many wolves hunt alone or in pairs. Some are “drifters.” Others may switch packs or move to new areas, perhaps following the caribou migration. In winter the packs stay together more to hunt.
Gray wolves mate in late February and March. The pairs then move to maternity dens near rivers in the foothills and mountains. About four to seven pups are born in late May or early June. By early winter, the pups can travel and hunt with the adult wolves.
Although to date, no dens have been found on the Refuge coastal plain, wolves make frequent trips there from May to July when the Porcupine caribou herd is present. After the caribou leave the coastal plain, the wolves stay in the mountains and foothills hunting caribou, along with Dall sheep and moose. Wolves, however, are opportunistic feeders. They will catch small rodents, birds, and ground squirrels if they can.
Natural relationships between predator and prey still prevail on the Arctic Refuge. Here the wolf’s connection to the caribou and the land continues as it has for centuries. Untamed and free, the wolf is a symbol for the Refuge – a truly remarkable place.