Biologist Dave Klein is pictured on St. Matthew Island in 2012. (Courtesy photo | Ned Rozell)

Biologist Dave Klein is pictured on St. Matthew Island in 2012. (Courtesy photo | Ned Rozell)

When biologists stocked Alaska with wolves

Alaska’s wolf-stocking experiment.

Alaska had been a state for one year in 1960 when its Department of Fish and Game conducted a wolf-planting experiment on Coronation Island in Southeast Alaska. At the time, the remote 45-square-mile island exposed to the open Pacific had a high density of blacktailed deer and no wolves. That summer, biologists from Fish and Game released two pairs of wolves on the island.

The experiment was the only wolf-stocking effort undertaken in Alaska and probably worldwide at that time, said Dave Klein, a professor emeritus with the University of Alaska’s Institute of Arctic Biology. Klein, who had studied deer on the island for his PhD thesis, helped the state make the decision to transplant wolves on Coronation Island.

“Alaska had just become a state and you had a brand-new department of fish and game staffed with young biologists who wanted to do things based on biology rather than a mix of politics and science. It’d be much more difficult to do it now.”

The terrain of Coronation Island is pictured, which Alaska biologists stocked with wolves in 1960. (Courtesy photo | Dave Klein)

The terrain of Coronation Island is pictured, which Alaska biologists stocked with wolves in 1960. (Courtesy photo | Dave Klein)

Fish and Game biologists released two male and two female wolves at Egg Harbor on Coronation Island. Before they left, the researchers shot five deer to provide food for the wolves.

Biologist Paul Garceau visited the island the next May and found tracks, deer remains and wolf scats containing deer hair and bones, showing that the wolves had adapted to life on the island.

Two months later, a commercial fisherman shot the two adult female wolves, but Garceau saw tracks of wolf pups on the island when he returned later that summer, indicating that the females had given birth before they died, and the pups had survived.

In 1964, Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Harry Merriam explored the island for eight days and saw 11 adult wolves and the tracks of two pups. He estimated that at least 13 wolves lived on the island and three litters of young had been born since the first wolves had arrived.

The following summer, in 1965, Merriam spent 10 days on the island, seeing wolf tracks on all the beaches. He saw no sign of deer on the north side of the island, but found deer tracks on the steep slopes of the island’s south side, where rough terrain and dense brush may have provided the best chance for deer to escape wolves.

In February 1966, Merriam saw only three wolves on the island, and their tracks suggested they were the only wolves left. He examined more than 100 wolf scats; six of those contained wolf remains only, suggesting the animals had resorted to cannibalism. Deer remains in the scats were less than one half of the previous spring; fragments of birds, seals, sea creatures and small mammals constituted the rest.

In August 1966, Merriam and his partners collected seven wolf scats, compared to 201 one year before. They found just three sets of fresh deer tracks.

By 1968, one wolf remained on the island. Biologists who inventoried the island’s animals in 1983 found no evidence of wolves, but the deer were once again plentiful.

Alaska’s only wolf-stocking experiment taught biologists the importance of habitat size (they concluded that a 45-square mile island was too small for both deer and wolves). The study also showed how many factors play into the dynamics of a wild animal population, which is a point Klein said many people miss in arguments about wolf control.

“The relationship between wolves and their prey is very complex,” he said. “Sometimes wolves are the key predators of caribou or moose, sometimes bears. Sometimes severe weather is the main factor, sometimes food availability.

“The main problem with these kinds of controversies is people are unwilling to look at the complexity of the ecosystems involved. Things are not simple in nature.”

Klein, with writer and researcher Karen Brewster, recently finished “The Making of an Ecologist: My Career in Alaska Wildlife Management and Conservation.” The book is now available through the University of Alaska Press.


• Since the late 1970s, the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute has provided this column free in cooperation with the UAF research community. Ned Rozell is a science writer for the Geophysical Institute.


More in News

Jasmine Chavez, a crew member aboard the Quantum of the Seas cruise ship, waves to her family during a cell phone conversation after disembarking from the ship at Marine Park on May 10. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Ships in port for the week of May 25

Here’s what to expect this week.

Bill Thomas, a lifelong Haines resident and former state lawmaker, has filed as a candidate for the District 3 House seat that includes the northern half of Juneau on Wednesday. (Alaska State Legislature photo)
Former Haines lawmaker Bill Thomas challenging Rep. Andi Story for District 3 House seat

Challenger served in Legislature from 2005-13, been a lobbyist and commercial fisherman for decades.

The student band performs at Thunder Mountain High School. (Screenshot from student film “Digging a Hole in the School Budget”)
Thunder Mountain High School graduates win film festival award

Documentary by Jade Hicks, Hayden Loggy-Smith portrays human impacts of school consolidation plan.

The city of Hoonah, which is petitioning to incorporate as a borough that includes a large surrounding area that includes Glacier Bay and a few tiny communities. (Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development photo)
Hoonah’s petition to create Alaska’s 20th borough opposed by state boundary commission staff

Xunaa Borough would rank 8th in size, 18th in population; final decision, public vote still pending.

Ian Worden, interim CEO at Bartlett Regional Hospital, presents an update about the hospital’s financial situation during a board of directors meeting on Tuesday night. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Bartlett officials seek to extend interim CEO’s contract to end of year amidst financial crisis planning

Ian Worden took over temporary leadership in October; 39 applicants so far for permanent job.

The LeConte state ferry departs Juneau on Tuesday afternoon, bound for Haines on a special round-trip following two cancelled sailings due to a mechanical problem. (Laurie Craig / Juneau Empire)
LeConte returns to service with special trip to Haines after weekend cancellation

State ferry will pick up half of nearly 60 stranded vehicles, others may have to wait until July.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Monday, May 27, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Anchorage pullers arrived at Wrangell’s Petroglyph Beach on May 23 for a canoe-naming ceremony. One of the canoes they will paddle to Juneau was dedicated to Wrangell’s Marge Byrd, Kiks.adi matriarch Shaawat Shoogoo. The canoe’s name is Xíxch’ dexí (Frog Backbone). (Becca Clark / Wrangell Sentinel)
Canoes making 150-mile journey from Wrangell, other Southeast communities to Celebration

Paddlers expected to arrive in Juneau on June 4, one day before biennial Alaska Native gathering.

The Alaska State Capitol and Dimond Courthouse are seen on Thursday morning, Jan. 18. (James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
Judicial Council recommends Alaskans keep all judges, including figure behind correspondence ruling

The Alaska Judicial Council has voted to recommend that state voters retain… Continue reading

Most Read