Are there wolves on Admiralty Island?

Posted: Thursday, February 21, 2002

About 80 people attended a recent Friends of Admiralty Island meeting in Juneau to hear about wolf reports on Admiralty.

No one brought an Admiralty wolf photo, but John Neary of the U.S. Forest Service brought pictures of wolf-like tracks he had taken. Jack Whitman of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said the tracks looked like wolf because the hind and front footprints matched, a rarity in dogs. However, he said the prints didn't look wide enough for a wolf. John and Jack were panelists, as were Ed Grossman, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, and Joel Bennett, wildlife filmmaker and former Alaska Board of Game member.

Grossman described how, for three successive evenings at King Salmon Bay, near the north end of Seymour Canal, he had watched a she wolf and a male dog approach a hunter-killed bear carcass. Each evening he watched them through a 45-power telescope for about 45 minutes. Near dark the first evening, he heard barking and the dog came running toward the carcass while the wolf proceeded cautiously with nose to the ground. The dog started to feed but the wary wolf just bedded down. The dog backed off the carcass and licked muzzles with the wolf. The scene repeated itself until on the third night, the dog brought some of the carcass to the wolf that still wouldn't have any part of it.

According to Fish and Game, there have been unconfirmed reports of wolves on the island from as far south as Pybus Bay. So, how could wolves get to Admiralty?

Fish and Game biologists say that wolves are strong enough swimmers to reach the island. Two of the shortest swimming distances from the mainland are opposite Grand Island and by way of Douglas Island. Wolves may have reached Admiralty at various times since maximum glaciation.

Whether and for how long migrants might have successfully reproduced is unknown. Brown bears are densely populated on Admiralty, and Whitman suggested that bears might dig wolf cubs out of their dens, thus limitingwolf presence on islands like Admiralty.

Grossman commented, "No matter your opinion about wolves on Admiralty, there's no place for dogs running around chasing deer or living off the land. My fear is that these two animals were going to mate and reproduce a litter of crossbred animals that are running around eating deer and other wildlife in a Wilderness National Monument." He added, "I was hoping we could at least trap the wolf and if it was purebred wolf, if it got there on its own accord, then that's the way it is. Let her loose. But if she had pups, that's a different matter, particularly being cross bred. But the dog should be eliminated."

Whitman said that after checking hundreds of wolves in Interior Alaska, he had never seen any wild animals that were obvious wolf-dog hybrids. "Although it's certainly possible," he didn't think it was very common.

In John Neary's words, "I'm pretty sure that if wolves got there naturally on their own, the Forest Service position would be to leave them alone." He said that in the Wilderness Act, Congress mandated that "places designated as Wilderness, like Admiralty, should have natural processes allowed to happen ... and ANILCA (Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act) never changed that."

It was evident from the discussion that the Forest Service, with its land management responsibility, would need to work closely with Fish and Game in addressing any occurrence of wolves or feral dogs on Admiralty. Whitman said that before any agency action decision, it would be important to establish whether individual animals are wolves, wolf-dog hybrids, or just dogs.

Joel Bennett said some would argue that consistent with the state's constitutional requirement that wildlife be managed on a sustained-yield basis, an island population of an indigenous animal be allowed to exist at some level of sustained yield, especially if it is an island as clearly separated from other land as Admiralty is.

Bennett added that if the matter of wolves on Admiralty ever came before the state's Board of Game process, "Somebody might pose the question to you (Forest Service) 'Do you have a duty to protect naturally occurring wolves on the island at that level?' Or maybe the state has a duty. It's kind of a gray area." He added, "An island ecosystem is somewhat different to deal with than others."

Bennett also pointed out that it could be a clearer case on Admiralty, maybe a little less clear on some other island. He suggested that the public may wish to protect wolves initially arriving on an island, at least long enough for a moderate population to take hold that would allow some reasonable trapping and still provide a sustainable wolf population.

If anyone thinks they have seen wolves on Admiralty, they are encouraged to contact Fish and Game.

Bruce Baker is a member of both Audubon and Friends of Admiralty Island and moderated the above panel discussion.

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