The East Fork (Toklat) Wolves

By: Paul Joslin, Ph.D.

Wolf Biologist

 

The first studied, longest known, most seen, and most photographed family lineage of wolves in the world came very close to extinction last year. Who are they and what happened?

First studied...

In the late 1930's, biologist Adolph Murie began observing the intimate details of a family of wolves living in the wild, known as the East Fork Pack. For two years he followed them on foot summer and winter, as well as monitored the moose, caribou and Dall's sheep upon which they preyed. He wrote a book about his observations entitled "The Wolves of Mount McKinley". It was an instant success, and has been reprinted many times.

As the first ever published account about the behavior and ecology of a family of wolves, it was also well received by the scientific community. Murie's original diaries, photographs and films of the East Fork or Toklat wolves, as they later came to be called, were archived at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. His cabin, which lies in the heart of the Toklat's territory, was also preserved, and is still used by the National Park Service staff.

Longest known lineage of wolves...

Following his in-depth investigation, Murie continued to monitor the Toklats over the next several decades. His work overlapped with the arrival of Dr. Gordon Haber, who in 1966, began an intense Toklat monitoring program that has continued ever since. Dr. Haber has personally kept track of their activities both summer and winter for 34 years while many other scientists have also added much to our understanding about them. According to Dr. Haber, the Toklat wolves constitute the world's oldest known family lineage of any non-human social vertebrate in the wild.

Most viewed...

The territory of the Toklat wolves encompasses a major portion of the main entrance road into Denali National Park. Approximately 20,000 wolf sightings are made per year along this road, almost all of which are of the Toklats. In contrast to almost everywhere else, these wolves have become remarkably tolerant of seeing visitors at close quarters. This has come about because of the way in which the experience is managed. Motorized access into the park is restricted almost exclusively to bus tours, with the result that wolf/human encounters occur mainly in the company of trained tour guides.

Sensitive to the importance of allowing wolves and other wildlife to establish the degree of closeness to visitors, both disturbance and harassment factors are minimized. The wolves, having discovered that they can trust the public, occasionally expose their pups to the same experience. In this way, successive generations of wolves have learned to accept visitors at close range far more quickly than would otherwise be possible.

Most photographed...

Such close viewing has attracted photographers from all over the world. The Park Service also offers a special permit to established professional photographers enabling them to operate independently of the bus tours. More photographs have been published of the Toklat wolves than any other group in Alaska.

Economic value...

Wolves and brown bears are the two top land mammals of interest to Alaskan tourists. Studies by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game have shown that visitors are prepared to spend many hundreds of dollars in-state for the opportunity to see a wolf. By this measure alone, the economic worth of the Toklat wolves over the years can literally be measured in millions of dollars.

How have they fared...

For the past several years the Toklats have been in decline. By the Spring of 1998, only two wolves remained - a young inexperienced female and an older male. Much of the 1997-98 decline occurred when they frequented a heavily hunted and trapped area of state land that penetrates deep inside the park. Two neighboring wolf groups - the Savage Pack and the Headquarters Pack - were previously destroyed by hunting and trapping.

Complicating matters further was the discovery that a third of the wolves tested in the park showed signs of having been exposed to Parvovirus, a disease contracted from unvaccinated dogs. This disease, which is especially fatal to young animals, may have accounted for the total failure of the Toklats to raise any pups in 1997. The surviving two wolves denned in the Spring of 1998. Dr. Haber kept careful watch as the weeks went by. He had little doubt that she had given birth, but wondered if Parvovirus might kill the offspring. He was relieved when four healthy pups emerged from the den. Throughout the summer the adults worked hard hunting for their growing family.

When fall came, the pups began to travel with their parents. Having no concept of park boundaries, in late winter they made forays outside the park, as the Toklats do most winters. They went much further afield than normal, crisscrossing areas where they could be hunted and trapped. While wolves belonging to neighboring families were being killed, none of the Toklats were caught. They eventually returned to the park and this Spring the parents gave birth to four more young. This brings to ten the total number of wolves within the group. Many park visitors have subsequently reported seeing the Toklats along the park road near Igloo.

Managing at the pack level...

The wolves of Denali National Park and Preserve are managed as a population. Hunting and trapping of wolves is allowed on two thirds of the land within the park and preserve as well as on the surrounding state lands. While such activities have resulted in several packs being destroyed, the population of wolves as a whole is not affected.

If you would like more information about the Toklat wolves, contact Paul Joslin, Ph.D. at 907-277-0897 or awa@alaska.net