When we think of predators in Alaska, the first animal that comes to the minds of many is the wolf. That’s likely because they compete with man for similar prey.
Those who keep chickens may be wary of the weasel, although a survey of chicken owners will find very few who have actually had a weasel kill one of their chickens. Dogs might be high on the list of predators; stray dogs — or the neighbors’ dog — come into yards and wreak havoc with domestic birds and rabbits.
The curious thing is when we think of the top predators, we think of the animals that prey on our stuff.
True hard-core predators are none of the critters that come first to mind. Think lynx. Think horned owls and goshawks. Coyotes. These are animals that literally eat themselves out of house and home.
Early this winter, when the first of the tracking snow was on the ground, there were a fair number of hares leaving their footprints along the willow patches in the Delta Junction area. Lynx and great horned owls left plentiful signs they were enjoying an excess of bunnies. However, to anyone who is more than a casual observer, there have been noticeably fewer hare tracks than there were in the last couple of seasons.
Suddenly, it’s mid-December. Two inches of fresh snow see zero bunny tracks crossing our half-mile driveway. A couple of days go by. Two lynx crisscross our road a half-dozen times — still nothing there for them to hunt.
The horned owls I’ve been seeing along our dog trails are also gone. A lone goshawk spends his day perched next to our chicken yard whistling plaintively at the birds protected by wire. These animals are hungry. Their prey is gone.
This is the way of the wild. Hares are the lifeblood of our most successful predators. When the prey in an area has been eaten, predators must move or starve.
Raptors are lucky. They can fly to another locale quickly. Hares are abundant in Paxson, 80 miles south. A goshawk can be there in a matter of hours. Owls tend to move slower, but they too will migrate to food. Specialty predators such as lynx will move, but some won’t make it.
Not many years back it was believed that when hares reached a population overload they became diseased and the population crashed. Recent research has made us rethink that theory.
The crash is actually tied to predation, according to the 2009 Journal of Animal Ecology. A great number of hares are eaten by predators, but that isn’t all. Hares under stress — caused by excessive predation, competition for food, and just the fact there are too many of them — have fewer and smaller offspring.
The predators will switch food sources, of course, but it takes quite a number of tundra voles to match the calories found in a varying hare.
In years past, trappers might help some local systems stay closer to balance. A trapper who caught 60 or 80 lynx along his local creek drainage would actually save quite a number of other predators as well as the remaining cats by relieving pressure on the food source. The lack of a fur market this winter will nullify that. It’s tough being a specialty predator.
In contrast to the hare specialist, coyotes seem to weather prey scarcities better than most. They will switch to red squirrels, voles, grouse and foxes.
They will also eat carrion. Coyotes are frequent visitors to road kills. They will also clean up wolf kills on occasion, but are quite wary in those situations, because wolves will eat them if given the opportunity.
Critters near the top of the food chain don’t have life quite so easy as the first glance may indicate. Recognizing that may make you a bit slower to pull out the shotgun when the hungry lynx circles the chicken coop.
Another accidental casualty of prey scarcity is ravens. While not hard-core predators themselves, they are dependent on top predators. The lack of automobile-flattened bunnies will make it tough on first-year birds that live along the highway system. My kids have been feeding soaked dog food to a couple of birds. The birds have become quite tame and sit just off the porch waiting for their morning handout.
Wolves still have their moose and caribou, ermine will stay with voles and shrews, and the dogs can eat at home. But the true Alaska predators could be in for a tough couple of years. Think of them while you are eating your bowl of ice cream on a minus 20 evening. Those big cats are locked in a battle for enough calories to make it through another night. For them, it is one day at a time.
John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and a two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.