How Alaska wolves rely on salmon

A desperate, hungry male wolf stands along a road in Gustavus. Photo by Bjorn Dihle

by Mary Catharine Martin

It’s not a secret that, in Alaska, wolves rely on salmon, just as many other species do. It is, however, a subject of evolving research.

Back in 2004, Alaska Department of Fish & Game Information Officer Riley Woodford wrote about a study on Prince of Wales Island in an Alaska Fish & Wildlife News article. Salmon, the article explained, are especially important for wolf pups. 

“For the youngest members of the packs, the chance to fatten up on fish in the fall can mean life or death over the winter,” it reads. 

The biologist who conducted that study, Dave Person, attributed wolves’ high survivorship in Southeast Alaska to salmon. “In places like Minnesota, half the pups die in their first summer,” he’s quoted as saying. “Here, we’ve noticed a 90 percent survivorship; I think salmon may play an important part in that.” 

Alaska Department of Fish & Game wildlife research biologist Gretchen Roffler is conducting a study using DNA to analyze wolf scat across Southeast Alaska. Wolves ate salmon in five of the 12 sites she studied, making up between two and 10 percent of wolves’ diets overall, averaged across the entire year, between 2010 and 2018. The numbers would be much higher, she expects, in late summer.

“Increased consumption of (marine and intertidal species) could be advantageous for wolves because of reduced handling times and risk, allowing wolves to forage individually. Salmon are well-recognized as an important seasonal food source for wolves in coastal regions,” she said.

Of a separate study of collared wolves, she wrote that a wolf they’re observing in the Gustavus, Alaska area spent many weeks fishing in late August to mid-September, eating pink and sockeye salmon.

An earlier study in Woodford’s article analyzing DNA in wolf bone found that “Salmon made up about 20 percent of the diet of wolves on the coastal mainland and on Prince of Wales Island, 15 percent of the diet of wolves on Kupreanof Island and about 10 percent of the diet of Interior wolves.”