The social carnivore
Family, pack structure a way of life for Northern wolves

Richard Gleeson
Northern News Services

Yellowknife ( May 22/00) - In dens throughout the NWT, a new generation of wolves is being born. That's the way it has been each year for millions of years.

Over that time the wolf has evolved little. It was already perfectly adapted to deal with the extremes of the Arctic environment.

 One of our wolf's greatest assets, one no other Northern carnivores possess, is the ability to work co-operatively.

RWED regional biologist Dean Cluff has seen plenty of examples of that over the years, most recently during a three-year study of the importance of eskers as denning habitat.

The study focused on a 60,000 square kilometre area straddling the tree line between Contwoyto, Lac de Gras and McKay Lakes.

"The most I've seen are eight wolves together at a den site," said Cluff. "That's probably pups from the previous year or even two previous years."

Wolf packs break down into smaller family groups at denning time.

"In June we often find the males sitting in front of the den and the females inside with the pups. The caribou aren't around, so they're just waiting."

It's a tense time of the year, waiting for the caribou to return from their calving grounds.

"The pups need to have that protein (from caribou meat)," said Cluff. "If the caribou are delayed a lot, say until mid-July, and if the pups don't get that protein they will die."

While the pups are in the den the males assume responsibility for hunting. Once they capture a caribou they will gorge on it then regurgitate food back at the den. They will also tear off a leg and bring it back. If the kill is close to the den, the family will feed on it where it was brought down.

Once the winter returns, the family groups form up into larger packs that stay together for the winter.

For the pups that make it through their first summer, the biggest threat becomes commercial hunters.

"It's still not a concern in terms of affecting the population," said Cluff. "We believe it's still sustainable."

Biologists have yet to get a reliable estimate of the number of wolves in NWT. The only source of information on the harvest are sales of pelts from the NWT and Nunavut at fur auctions. Each year over the six winters from 1992 to 1998 between 727 and 1,227 wolf skins were sold.

"There's no quota or any hunters' survey, so those would be conservative," said Cluff.

"There would be a few wolves that are used as parka trim locally. If they're not exporting out of the NWT we wouldn't necessarily know about them."