Field Notes From Denali
February and March are among the best months for observing wolves in Denali National Park, because of their interesting behavior and longer daylight together with a good snow cover for seeing them. I am between research flights at the moment, so this is a good opportunity to post a few updates and some of the recent photos.  As in previous Denali updates, my comments are limited primarily to high profile eastern groups:
• The Toklat (East Fork) family has remained at 11 wolves, including 5-6 pups, during my recent research flights (through at least 3/8); this is down from 14-17 wolves in late January.  I don’t know of any direct trapping or shooting losses, although there is no way to rule out losses of uncollared wolves that might have left the group temporarily and would have returned but were trapped or shot outside the park.  Also, a newly collared  pair of young adults that appears to be recolonizing the eastern area of the park could be from the Toklat family.  Toklat continues to range east of Savage River in the same area as the pair, with indications of mutual tolerance.  I am not aware of any recent observations of the previous recolonizers - i.e., since the previous male’s mate was hit and killed by a vehicle in late November 2008 and he and several of their 2008 pups were seen nearby (refer to the last updates).
Below: Ten of the 11 Toklat wolves socialize; one is just outside the photo.  The two collared wolves are the alpha pair, the parents of most if not all others (the charcoal gray male is just behind his light tan mate). The largest wolf of the group, alongside the collared female on her left rear side, is a submissive young adult, almost certainly the same young adult female who closely attended the pups in summer-fall 2008 (shown in the Sept. 22, 2008 and other blog entries - also the sleepy-eyed wolf on the left side of the photo above). The three tan and two black wolves in the forefront of the photo are 9-10-month-old pups, now virtually indistinguishable from adults based on size alone.  February 2009.
Toklat’s mating activities apparently peaked during the first few days of March, but a spell of bad flying weather precluded most opportunities to observe it.  Nonetheless, I am confident from other observations of their close relationship that the same dominant male and female are still the primary breeders and have been since 2005 (see the April 8, 2008 blog entry as well as the photos below).  The daily NPS (Park Service) GPS satellite locations for the male (T. Meier, pers. commun.) indicate he was at the established natal den for at least two days in early March. On March 7, I was able to verify from tracks that a group was present at the den at about that time. Repeatedly in the past I observed Toklat and other groups go to this and other established natal dens for, or just after, their peak mating activities and clean the den out, even though they would not be occupying it for another couple of months.  This indicates they are able to associate their sexual activities of late February-early March with the upcoming birth of young in May.  
• The Margaret male and female are still ranging together in the same dangerous trapping-hunting area, primarily outside the northeast park boundary.  As in the previous observations, he seems to be doing a lot of scent marking and is displaying other assertive behavior characteristic of a male who has just taken over a new area and found a mate.  NPS radio collared him in late February; he is about three years old and weighed 110 lbs (50 kg) (T. Meier, pers. commun.).  Refer to the recent photos at the bottom of the page and the February 13, 2009 blog entry.          
• NPS helicoptered to the site where the Stampede alpha male died recently (Feb. 13 blog entry), to retrieve his radio collar and try to determine the cause of death. Based on what little was left at the site, he was most likely killed by other wolves (T. Meier, pers. commun.).  This would be my leading guess, because of the heavy competition between resident and migratory wolves for wintering caribou in that general (north park boundary) area (Dec. 2007 paper on Reports2 page). At least 2-3 wolves of the Toklat Springs group were trespassing near the mortality site, just outside the Stampede territory, during my observations on March 7.  Toklat Springs’ normal territory is about 10 miles (16 km) to the northeast.
• The Toklat West (Grant Creek) family is still at six wolves (2 adults, 4 surviving pups) and is still ranging primarily within the established territory, west of Toklat’s territory.                                              
Below:  Wolves have extraordinary sensory abilities with their noses, eyes, and ears.  Six Toklat wolves rely mainly on their noses to investigate recent wolf tracks and scent just east of their territory.  Two pups check out tracks on the left, while on the right their mother, a black pup, and another wolf are apparently drawn to a scent mark on a small tree.  Their father/mate, the alpha male, walks between, and one of the ever-present ravens watches from overhead.  Five other wolves are outside the photo. February 2009.    
Below:  Three of the pups show particular interest in the tracks.  February 2009.    
Below (2 photos):  The 11 Toklat wolves check out fresh wolf scent on the overflow ice of a river.  The light tan alpha female has her nose to the ice near the rear of the group while the alpha male and two others do the same at the right- and left-center.  February 2009.
Left: Toklat wolves howl with the engine of our circling airplane. Others are doing the same outside the photo.  See the March 8, 2008 blog entry for more on this behavior. February 2009.
Below (2 photos): The light tan female and charcoal gray male, now almost six years old, are the parents of most if not all others presently in the Toklat group.  Like many of the mated pairs I have known from this family and others, they have a close relationship year-round and are commonly right next to each other while traveling, at rest, and during other activities.  February 2009.  
Below: The light tan alpha female waits as her mate checks out some scent in the trail. Their two surviving 2008 black pups head toward littermates outside the photo.  February 2009.      
Below:  The light tan female warns one of her overly rambunctious pups with a snarl. She is the one I most often see disciplining pups and subadults.  She doesn’t stand out much in size relative to the other Toklat adults, but I have never seen her acting submissively to any of them except occasionally her mate, who similarly backs away when now and then she snaps at him for something.  She also impresses me with her intelligence and “street smarts.”  March 2009.  
Below: The same female disciplines another pup, as one wolf watches closely but the others seem uninterested.  February 2009.  
Below (3 photos) and top of page:  It is late morning and the Toklat wolves (5 are outside the photo) have just started out in the typical single file travel formation, after a period of sleep.  But it often takes at least a couple of starts for the wolves to really get going.  Only minutes after starting, the line comes to a halt and they all sit and lay down in place, sleepy-eyed in the pleasant sunshine.  After about 15 minutes, the charcoal gray alpha male - the fourth wolf in line in this photo (with his light tan mate sitting right behind) - decides it is time to go and stands up.  The tan adult sitting just ahead of the black pup is the largest wolf in the group but also one of the most submissive.  She lowers her ears and tries to get out of the alpha male’s way as he passes on the left to lead.  Her move to the other side agitates the smaller tan adult just ahead. That wolf snarls as she slinks by submissively. March 2009.            
Below: An adult asserts some dominance over a tan pup on the left, while a black pup watches from next to his father, the charcoal gray alpha male.  March 2009.            
Left: A brief display of dominance and submission in its most common form, between two of the Toklats.  March 2009.  
Below: On the far right, the Toklat alpha female scratches up the ground with her hind feet after scent marking a tuft of grass, while on the far left a wolf rolls around for a good back rub next to the alpha male. March 2009.
Below: The Toklat family (2 wolves are outside the photo) crosses some overflow ice.  February 2009.
Below:  A raven teases two of the Toklat wolves as the group travels, trying to get them to chase, but the wolves do not take the bait.  Ravens accompany wolves regularly and eat at their meals.  They go out of their way to tease the younger, more gullible wolves in particular.  February 2009.
Above: Wolves have much larger front feet than dogs, which adapts them well for traveling in snow.  Note the size of the tan wolf’s raised paw. February 2009.
Left:  The leader stops briefly to ponder a cross-trail as the Toklat wolves travel through fresh snow (7 others are in line behind these 4). The alpha female is currently the third wolf in line, and the alpha male is behind her. Note the size of her right front paw and how she is placing it inside an existing paw mark, a good combination for minimizing energy expenditure while traveling in snow, along with the single file formation.  March 2009.  
Above and left (2 photos): The Margaret pair, with the male leading. Both are young adults, about three years old.  February 2009.
Left:  The Margaret male.  February 2009.
Left: The Margaret male kicks up snow with his hind feet after scent marking.  February 2009.  
Below: The female frolics behind the male as the Margaret pair traverses some rugged mountains.  February 2009.  
Mar 18, 2009
Two wolves of the Toklat family snooze during a short travel break on a sunny morning in Denali National Park. Nine other family members are doing the same just outside the photo.  March 2009.