Victor Van Ballenberghe
The Savage River wolf pack lives in the eastern part of Denali National Park in central Alaska. Naturalist Adolph Murie studied this and other packs in his pioneering wolf studies that began in 1939. Like other packs, the Savage River wolves live in a territory that is defended against intruders from neighboring packs. Wolves have likely inhabited the Savage pack's territory for hundreds of years, using the same dens, trails, and hunting areas that the wolves of today know well. Territories are passed down to the descendents of a pack - perhaps today's Savage River wolves contain the genes of animals Adolph Murie watched fifty years ago.
This area of Denali contains moose, caribou, and Dall's sheep that are the principal prey of wolves. Snowshoe hares, ptarmigan, beaver, and a variety of other small animals also provide food. Grizzly bears are the main competitors with wolves for certain prey like moose and caribou. Bears and wolves may trade prey carcasses back and forth and sometimes kill each other in disputes over ownership. A host of scavenger including red fox, coyote, wolverine, lynx, raven, eagle, and magpie compete for prey remains.
During my fifteen years of research at Denali I have seen and heard the Savage River pack many times. They seldom are harassed by humans and are quite tolerant as a result, at times appearing on or near a park road as they travel their territory. I have also encountered them several miles from the road during the course of my research and observed them from 200-300 yards as they rested or played. Frequently, I have listened to them howl to each other or to advertise their presence to other packs. Several deep-voiced adults and high-pitched pups howling in unison is one of the most exciting sounds in the north.
Pack size fluctuates from year to year in most wolf packs and the Savage River pack is no exception. Twenty-five years ago the pack contained up to 18 individuals but in the early 1980's it dwindled to only a few and may have ceased to function as a pack. By 1985 it recovered and since then has produces pups each year with about 3-5 typically surviving the summer. In 1993, a second litter was born to a pair of wolves of unknown origin who seemed to occupy a small part of the original territory while the main pack and its pups were farther south. The offshoot pups were small by autumn and unlikely to survive the winter.
Alaskan wolves vary in color from white to black with most being a combination of gray and brown. The Savage River wolves have all been light gray in recent years, including the alpha male and female that from a distance appear almost white. I have a vivid memory of watching the alpha male traveling by himself across several miles of tundra an a late May evening several years ago as he searched for newborn moose calves. His light coat made him visible from more than a mile away while bounding through the new green shrubs. I also recall watching this wolf lead the pack of ten adults and pups toward a moose carcass on a bright September evening. Their light coat contrasted with the yellows, reds, and greens of the frosted tundra.
In August and early September 1993, part of the Savage River pack killed three caribou bulls on the Savage River near the park road and gave park visitors glimpses into the drama that regularly unfold in wolf country. Caribou bulls are fat at that time of the year and seek the protection of water when chased by wolves rather than running away. However, the river was too shallow to provide protection and all three bulls succumbed in the water. I watched one kill as the wolves hurried to cache meat before a bear arrived. As with the two previous kills, bears took the carcasses from the wolves within two days.
Several years ago the Savage river wolves shared a bull moose carcass close to the park road. A large, dark-colored grizzly bear discovered the moose first and fed for several days. The wolves arrived to find a half-consumed carcass and a bear that seemed willing to leave. The wolves stayed until most of the meat was gone, where upon the bear returned and again took possession. One evening, several members of the pack enjoyed a group howling session next to the road, a concert overheard by a few lucky people who happened to be present. This same bear was later seen several miles away at the pack's rendezvous site being harassed by the adults who clearly were agitated by his presence close to the young pups.
Paul Errington, a distinguished scientist who studied predation, once wrote that wild animals live if they can and die if they must. This applies to the individuals of the Savage River wolf Pack who struggle daily with all the problems of earning a living on a harsh land. Despite problems that at times appear overwhelming, the pack survives to travel the tundra, hunt prey animals, howl in unison, produce pups, and do all the other things that make them wild wolves. Let us hope that these wonderful animals will continue to occupy wild areas of the world.
Victor Van Ballenberghe is a wildlife biologist who has studied moose and wolves for over 28 years.