“The Wanderer: An Alaska Wolf’s Final Journey”
By Tom Walker; Mountaineers Books, 2023; 171 pages; $18.95.
There’s so much to know about any one creature in our world, and even more to know about how creatures interact with their environment and one another. Bring into that mix the apex human animal, with all our history, science, politics and behaviors, and the story gets more fascinating yet.
Writer and photographer Tom Walker, with his lifetime of close observation of the natural world and the lives of animals, has written a remarkable new book that tracks a single wolf as it wandered through northern Alaska for 3,000 miles, driven by its need to eat, escape danger, and find a mate. That Walker didn’t literally climb mountains and ford rivers to do this makes the story no less interesting.
In November of 2010, as part of a long-term study, biologists captured two wolves within the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. They replaced a radio collar on the female and fitted a satellite (GPS) collar to the young male, a two-year-old they thought had dispersed from another pack to bond with the female and potentially start a new pack. The GPS technology tracked Wolf 258′s movements and allowed biologists (and Walker, who gained access to the records) to learn just where the wolf went and what it was likely doing for the next year. After a relatively stationary winter, during which the female died, Wolf 258 traveled into the northwest corner of Yukon Territory, across the Arctic coast, and back south, paralleling the Dalton Highway, to the Yukon River.
Within the framework of Wolf 258′s travels, Walker includes a wealth of information about wolf biology and behavior, the life histories of other animals, the various parks and conservation units in Alaska, the history of human occupation and resource development in the north, and Alaska’s predator control programs.
The Yukon-Charley wolf study (intended to “explore fundamental questions about predator-prey dynamics”) began in 1998 and by 2014 had collared 165 different wolves to learn about their lives and deaths. For example, from 17 wolves collared from a single pack over many years, biologists learned that four were trapped, four starved, two were killed by other wolves, one was killed by a moose, one died after an encounter with a porcupine, and five dispersed into other territories. Biologists now understand that pack size primarily depends on available food, other wolves are the most common cause of wolf deaths in the wild, lone wolves may make up 20% of wolf populations (despite typical family structures), and wolves travel widely, in and out of large territorial ranges.
While the Yukon-Charley Preserve, as federal land, allows hunting and trapping, state policies have also affected its wolves. Walker’s chapter on the state of Alaska’s wolf control programs is well-informed and even-handed. Beginning with the history of Alaska’s predator control programs, which started with a federal bounty system in 1927, Walker proceeds through the more benign state efforts after statehood and then the controversies of the 1990s.
He gives considerable attention to the state’s 1994 Intensive Management Act, which favors reducing predator numbers to increase the numbers of caribou and moose for human use and put state and federal wildlife goals into conflict. In 2009, for example, state biologists as well as independent pilots shot 220 wolves in the Upper Yukon area, surrounding the federal preserve. Wolves from within the preserve that ventured onto state lands were killed, resulting in a population drop within the preserve of 64%. Many of the animals killed had been collared for the study.
The relationship between wolves and caribou is a classic predator-prey one, and Walker gives plenty of ink to the various caribou herds that Wolf 258 encountered in his travels. He presents research that indicates that wolves may take 3-5% of the Porcupine Herd each year, a portion thought “not to be a primary factor limiting its size.” Over time the herds have seen large population swings and changes in migration patterns. Today, climate change adds to their challenges. As one example, the warming climate has resulted in an earlier hatch of mosquitoes, corresponding to caribou calving time and disrupting feeding and rest as well as weakening the animals through the loss of blood.
GPS technology has made it possible, not just to track an animal’s movement, but to understand its behaviors. When Wolf 258 stayed in one place for long, he probably had made a kill (or found carrion). When he headed up a mountain, he likely was hunting sheep. Walker made the most of what he could learn from the GPS record, weather reports, and his own extensive knowledge of wildlife, seasonal activity, and the traversed environment. This allowed him to “fill in” in an imaginative but essentially truthful way what Wolf 258 may have experienced.
Here, for example, is Wolf 258 along the Kandik River, a Yukon tributary, at the end of April: “Chivying red squirrels marked his movements as he explored every scent, every detail that might lead to food. He paced old moose trails through the maze of forests, brushing against wisps of snagged hair that marked the passage of grizzly bears. He sniffed old squirrel middens, made a run at a spruce grouse cock courting a hen, gnawed old moose bones, and quenched his thirst with ice-cold river water colored with tannin.”
The life of a wolf — especially a lone wolf — in Alaska is a hard one, and the book title’s “final journey” is a clue to the fate of Wolf 258.
Tom Walker book signings
Eagle River Nature Center, 32750 Eagle River Road in Eagle River
June 16, 6:30 p.m.
Title Wave Books, 1360 W. Northern Lights Blvd. in Anchorage
June 17, 11 a.m.-1 p.m.
Fireside Books, 720 S. Alaska St. in Palmer
June 17, 3-5 p.m.