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What's the Usain Bolt of Alaska's land-based critters?

Bison may not look fast, but the author has them at No. 4 on his list of the speediest land animals in Alaska, behind only Roosevelt elk, coyotes, caribou. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

MACLAREN RIVER — I recently read an article about the world's fastest animals. Interesting, but many of them were birds. Peregrine falcons have reached 280 mph on dive attacks, and spine-tailed swifts can exceed 100 mph in level flight. Despite the drag of water, sailfish have been clocked at 70 mph. That's great, but what I really want to know is how fast do I have to be to outrun that grizzly?

For the purposes of this column, let's limit the discussion to the speediest Alaska land animals. I admit it may be important to the die-hard duck hunter to know that a green-wing teal is passing by at 70 mph. And it seems amazing that a golden eagle can hit 80 mph in level, powered flight. However, land animals are what we humans relate to most easily. Despite my research, much of this is subjective.

The champ

Alaska's fastest running animal is the caribou, which can hit 50 mph for a stretch on broken tundra. The Kentucky Derby horses that ran last weekend did a touch over a mile in two minutes — 30-some mph — on a groomed track. Maybe I should have shown up with one of my reindeer? But they aren't keen on saddles.

There much internet hype on the speed of wolves. But I have seen herds of caribou stop and wait for pursuing wolves to catch up, then run off again. The wolves, being quite intelligent, soon quit that game. Gray wolves have trouble getting beyond 30 mph, so they rank no better than No. 11 on my list.  Anyone who has watched a wolf try to chase down a red fox will understand why I rank the fox at No. 10.

It seems reasonable, at least to me, that the fastest land animals would be prey. After all, most predators have the advantage of stealth on their side. One of our faster predators is the grizzly.  Despite all that weight, grizzlies are a bit faster than foxes over short distances. Humans, of course, aren't going to outrun them. Running from a bear, either grizzly or black, could spell the end, even for Usain Bolt, the fastest human ever at 27.8 mph. Grizzlies came in at No. 9.

I ranked black bears No. 8. I would not classify black bears as a true predator. Perhaps they developed speed to keep out of harm's way when encountering grizzlies.

Rapid acceleration

Prey animals must be able to go from zero to wide open in a flash. To me, that means snowshoe hares are the ultimate prey species, able to accelerate from zero to 35 mph in a heartbeat. However, they were designed to be eaten. If they were too fast, that could be a problem for critters who depend on them for survival — one reason I have them at no better than No. 7.

Sitka blacktail deer are both quick and fast even though the country they travel through does not lend itself to speed. In much of their habitat, they must be able to escape hungry bears. Though the deers' true top-end speed is tough to determine, the success of the species leads me to put them at No. 6.

Picking the top 5 is relatively easy. Some folks might shuffle the order a bit, or make the argument that a couple animals on my list are transplants, but I included re-introduced species. After all, they are here and have viable populations that interact with the natives.

No. 5 is the arctic hare. Speed is their trademark. In their natural habitat they are only captured by predators' stealth. Foxes catch them by surprise. Alaska's fastest predator, coyotes, might get one in a wide open sprint on good terrain. But the ranges of these two speedsters rarely intersect.

Coyotes rank No. 3 on my list, just ahead of bison.

I have watched bison on the Delta River flats and in Alaska's barley project fields. They can move. The book says 40 mph, and I can believe that's true in a short sprint. Bison were native to Alaska as recently as a hundred years ago. The last of them were hunted out in the Lower Yukon area shortly after 1900. All of the bison in Alaska today are transplants.

The second fastest animal in Alaska is also a transplant. Roosevelt elk were introduced on the Kodiak archipelago in 1929, and Rocky Mountain elk were brought to Southeast some 40 years ago. Both populations have flourished. Elk of both species are reputed to move at 45 mph. The only running elk I have seen were near Jackson Hole, Wyoming. A coyote was chasing a group of eight elk on the flats, and they dusted him.

Dawdling flying squirrels

I checked speeds of a few other Alaskans. Polar bears hit 25 mph. Wolverines, about the same. Lynx seem slow at just over 20 mph. Red squirrels and weasel are quick rather than fast — their small size makes them look like they have speed. Arctic foxes have a top speed in the 20s. Wolves can catch them, which is maybe why they developed white camo? The big surprise for me were flying squirrels. Their glide clocks in at just over 20 mph.

The swimming speeds of sea lions and the various seals may rival the ground swiftness of some of my listed animals, but I don't believe any of them would get close to the top 10.

Speed is one of the requirements for abundance in a prey species. Lacking speed, size is important. Moose, no doubt, are the leading example of that. They are a bit slower than a wolf, so moose rarely attempt to outrun one.

Those are my top 10 Alaska speedsters. Some of my choices may be argued, but I think few can dispute that caribou are the champions.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.

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