killing of wolves to boost moose and caribou populations in
Alaska is making headlines all over the country. In 1960,
a government program to stock an Alaska island with wolves
received less attention.
had been a state for one year when its Department of Fish
and Game conducted a wolf-planting experiment on Coronation
Island in Southeast Alaska. At the time, the remote 45-square-mile
island exposed to the open Pacific had a high density of black-tailed
deer and no wolves. In 1960, biologists from Fish and Game
released two pairs of wolves on the island.
experiment was the only wolf-stocking effort undertaken in
Alaska and probably the whole world at that time, said Dave
Klein, a professor emeritus with the University of Alaska's
Institute of Arctic Biology. Klein, who had studied deer on
the island for his doctoral thesis, helped the state make
the decision to introduce wolves to Coronation Island.
biologists released two male and two female wolves at Egg
Harbor on Coronation Island. Before they left, the researchers
shot five deer to provide food for the wolves.
Paul Garceau visited the island in May 1961 and found tracks,
deer remains and wolf scats containing deer hair and bones,
showing that the wolves had adapted to life on the island.
Two months later, a commercial fisherman shot the two adult
female wolves, but Garceau saw tracks of wolf pups on the
island when he returned later that summer. The females had
given birth before they died, and the pups had survived.
1964, Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Harry Merriam
explored the island for eight days and saw 11 adult wolves
and the tracks of two pups. He estimated that at least 13
wolves lived on the island and three litters of young had
been born since the first wolves arrived.
following summer, in 1965, Merriam spent 10 days on the island,
seeing wolf tracks on all the beaches. He saw no sign of deer
on the north side of the island but found deer tracks on the
steep slopes of the island's south side, where rough terrain
and dense brush may have provided the best chance to escape
February 1966, Merriam saw only three wolves on the island,
and their tracks suggested they were the only wolves left.
He examined more than 100 wolf scats; six of those contained
wolf remains only, suggesting the animals had resorted to
cannibalism. Deer remains in the scats were less than one-half
of the previous spring; fragments of birds, seals, sea creatures
and small mammals constituted the rest.
August 1966, Merriam and his partners collected seven wolf
scats, compared to 201 one year before. They found just three
sets of fresh deer tracks. By 1968, one wolf remained on the
island. Biologists who inventoried the island's animals in
1983 found no evidence of wolves, but the deer were once again
only wolf-stocking experiment taught biologists the importance
of habitat size. They concluded that a 45-square-mile island
was too small for both deer and wolves. The study also showed
that a lot of factors play into the dynamics of a wild animal
population, which is a point Klein said many people miss in
current arguments about wolf control.
relationship between wolves and their prey is very complex,"
he said. "Sometimes wolves are the key predators of caribou
or moose, sometimes bears. Sometimes severe weather is the
main factor, sometimes food availability.
main problem with these kinds of controversies is people are
unwilling to look at the complexity of the ecosystems involved.
Things are not simple in nature."
Ned Rozell is a science writer at the Geophysical Institute,
University of Alaska Fairbanks. He can be reached by e-mail