On average, a Yukon wolf pack takes a moose every week to 10 days. (Cameron Eckert/Submitted)

Getting to know Yukon’s big, not so bad, wolves

Killing a moose means taking down an animal which weighs more than the whole pack combined

Odds are, even if you’ve lived in the Yukon your whole life, you’ve never seen a wolf.

The Yukon is home to 4,500 and 5,000 of these shy, elusive and mysterious animals, says Pete Knamiller, wolf biologist with Environment Yukon.

Wolves (Canis lupus), live in territorial hierarchical family units — packs — which “spend most of their time in close proximity with each other,” Knamiller says. Packs in the Yukon average around seven animals, although numbers are low as two and as high as 20 have been reported.

Home ranges for Yukon wolves can be anywhere from 500 square-kilometres to 2,000 sq. km in the Yukon, he says. This is a significantly larger amount of territory for a pack than in southern climates, because the overall prey density of the Yukon is lower — the higher the density of prey animals in an area, the smaller the range needs to be. In the Yukon, the primary diet of most wolf packs is moose.

“If there are abundant prey animals, then the ranges can be a lot smaller,” he says. “In the Yukon, we have a fairly low ungulate density.”

The “number one daily chore” for a wolf is “to find food” says Knamiller.

“It’s not as easy as wolves just finding a moose and taking it down,” however, Knamiller adds.

Hungry wolves will move about their territories — a wolf can cover up to 20 kilometres of rough backcountry ground a day by taking the “path of least resistance” Knamiller notes — and will check “prey pockets,” which are areas where wolves know moose like to hang out. Even if they encounter an animal, though, it might not be a suitable target.

“(A pack) may need to encounter a number of individual animals before they find one to eat,” Knamiller says. Even when they find one, the fight is “a lot more balanced” than many people realize, as wolves and moose have co-evolved together for millenial.

“Few people realize how difficult and risky this is” for wolves, Knamiller says.

An adult male moose can weigh up to 1,000 pounds (480 kilograms) and run up to 30 km per hour; the average wolf weighs between 80 and 100 lbs (35 and 45 kg). So for wolves, hunting a moose basically means taking down an animal which weighs more than the whole pack combined — that very much does not want to be food — with only their mouths (which, admittedly, are full of teeth, but still), an effort not totally unlike that of ancient humans hunting mammoths with nothing but spears. Wolves often accomplish this dangerous task in the dead of winter, in freezing temperatures, in deep snow, in the dark.

When they do manage a successful kill, wolves will proceed to gorge themselves, “sitting on the kill” until it is entirely devoured. It’s not unlike Thanksgiving holidays for humans; wolves will get up, waddle over to the kill, eat until they can’t eat anymore, waddle back over to their den and go to sleep until they’re ready to eat some more.

For a moose, this usually takes four to five days for an average-sized pack and more like two to three days for caribou. The pack takes some chill-out time to “digest,” usually a day or two, and then it’s off to try to find more prey to stalk, hunt, take down and kill, starting the process all over again, says Knamiller.

On average, a Yukon wolf pack takes a moose every week to 10 days, he says.

Those numbers fluctuate with the season, he notes, as wolves are “opportunistic hunters” and there is more variety of prey at different times of the year. Wolves love to eat beaver — they are slow and full of nutrient-rich fat — which make up to one-third of their diet during the summer, for example, although those numbers are not Yukon-specific. They will also scavenge carcasses, snap up rodents and even eat berries, in the right season.

A wolf’s life is dictated by an annual cycle of breeding and feeding. Females usually come into heat in March, although only the Alpha — the most dominant, highest ranking female — will mate. For this, she selects a male — the Alpha male — and together the pair not only actively breed but work together to keep the other pack members from breeding as well as a dedicated monogamous unit. When the pups are born in May — around 63 days after conception, similar to a dog — the whole pack will care for them, often with a beta acting as a “nanny” wolf.

Although this may seem unfair by human standards, this arrangement benefits the pack in a number of ways, says Knamiller. Not only are the Alpha wolves usually the most physically fit and intelligent pack members, they are often the best and most experienced hunters; if they couldn’t trust the pack to help care for their offspring communally, they wouldn’t be able to go out and hunt, meaning less for everyone to eat over all.

Moreover, as they are the best specimens and the most accomplished hunters, only allowing them to breed gives the next generation of the pack the best genetic hand to work with.

When the pups are born, they are blind, weighing about a pound, although after about 10 days they are able to walk around and come out of the den, says Knamillier. When they are ready to eat solid food, the pack brings them meat in the very handy pocket that is their bellies and regurgitate it for them to eat — dragging a whole dead moose through the bush is not practical or economical, energy wise, although they do bring bones and other goodies back for the pups to eat and play with.

“That’s often how you know you’ve stumbled on den-site,” says Knamiller. “There will be bones scattered all around.”

By the fall, the pups are mobile and, although they are unlikely to be good hunters at this stage. By winter, they are “watching and learning” the trade of hunting from the whole pack.

It is also around this time — late fall, early winter — that the pups from the previous year or two before begin to disperse in the hopes of forming their own packs — obviously they can’t just hang out and mate with their siblings. The pack size reduces, that season’s pups finishing growing into adult wolves over the winter, and come March the cycle begins all over again.

Regardless of how you feel about wolves — which are still, even here in the North, often maligned or an object of fear — there’s one thing you should always remember about them, says Knamiller; they’re way more scared of you than you are of them.

They are inherently shy, cautious animals, which is why they are rarely seen, even by experienced bush people.

In North America there have only been three recorded human deaths in the last one hundred years from wolves — you are infinitely more likely to die in a plane crash than to be attacked by a wolf, he notes.

Knamiller — who spends time with wolves in the wild and even handles them during collaring and research — says he has “never felt threatened by them.”

For more information about wolves in the Yukon, visit www.env.gov.yk.ca/animals-habitat/ mammals/wolf.php.

Contact Lori Fox at lori.fox@yukon-news.com

Environment Yukon

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Children’s performer Claire Ness poses for a photo for the upcoming annual Pivot Festival. “Claire Ness Morning” will be a kid-friendly performance streamed on the morning of Jan. 30. (Photo courtesy Erik Pinkerton Photography)
Pivot Festival provides ‘delight and light’ to a pandemic January

The festival runs Jan. 20 to 30 with virtual and physically distant events

The Boulevard of Hope was launched by the Yukon T1D Support Network and will be lit up throughout January. It is aimed at raising awareness about Yukoners living with Type 1 diabetes. (Stephanie Waddell/Yukon News)
Boulevard of Hope sheds light on Type 1 diabetes

Organizers hope to make it an annual event

City of Whitehorse city council meeting in Whitehorse on Oct. 5, 2020. An updated council procedures bylaw was proposed at Whitehorse city council’s Jan. 18 meeting that would see a few changes to council meetings and how council handles certain matters like civil emergencies. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Whitehorse procedures bylaw comes forward

New measures proposed for how council could deal with emergencies

A Yukon survey querying transportation between communities has already seen hundreds of participants and is the latest review highlighting the territory’s gap in accessibility. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Multiple reports, survey decry lack of transportation between Yukon communities

A Community Travel survey is the latest in a slew of initiatives pointing to poor accessibility

Mobile vaccine team Team Balto practises vaccine clinic set-up and teardown at Vanier Catholic Secondary School. Mobile vaccine teams are heading out this week to the communities in order to begin Moderna vaccinations. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
Mobile vaccine teams begin community vaccinations

“It’s an all-of-government approach”

A file photo of grizzly bear along the highway outside Dawson City. Yukon conservation officers euthanized a grizzly bear Jan. 15 that was originally sighted near Braeburn. (Alistair Maitland/Yukon News file)
Male grizzly euthanized near Braeburn

Yukon conservation officers have euthanized a grizzly bear that was originally sighted… Continue reading

Mayor Dan Curtis listens to a councillor on the phone during a city council meeting in Whitehorse on April 14, 2020. Curtis announced Jan. 14 that he intends to seek nomination to be the Yukon Liberal candidate for Whitehorse Centre in the 2021 territorial election. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Whitehorse mayor seeking nomination for territorial election

Whitehorse mayor Dan Curtis is preparing for a run in the upcoming… Continue reading

Gerard Redinger was charged under the <em>Civil Emergency Measures Act</em> with failing to self-isolate and failing to transit through the Yukon in under 24 hours. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
Man ticketed $1,150 at Wolf Creek campground for failing to self-isolate

Gerard Redinger signed a 24-hour transit declaration, ticketed 13 days later

Yukon Energy, Solvest Inc. and Chu Níikwän Development Corporation are calling on the city for a meeting to look at possibilities for separate tax rates or incentives for renewable energy projects. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Tax changes sought for Whitehorse energy projects

Delegates call for separate property tax category for renewable energy projects

Yukon University has added seven members to its board of governors in recent months. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
New members named to Yukon U’s board of governors

Required number of board members now up to 17

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: Your Northern regulatory adventure awaits!

“Your Northern adventure awaits!” blared the headline on a recent YESAB assessment… Continue reading

Yukoner Shirley Chua-Tan is taking on the role of vice-chair of the social inclusion working group with the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences’ oversight panel and working groups for the autism assessment. (Submitted)
Canadian Academy of Health Sciences names Yukoner to panel

Shirley Chua-Tan is well-known for a number of roles she plays in… Continue reading

Most Read