Petersburg wolf stops by Wrangell on long swim to Etolin Island

Wolves are social, territorial animals that educate their young, care for their injured and stick with their close-knit family groups - most of the time, that is. In the past few months, a wolf from Petersburg has struck out on its own and taken up swimming, behaviors that are unusual - though not unheard of - for a wolf.

The swimming wolf traveled from Petersburg to Wrangell Island to Etolin Island, and its movements could help area scientists learn more about the animals' lifestyle .

The animal was captured on Sept. 14 within Petersburg city limits by state area biologist Frank Robbins and program technician Hilary Wood, who outfitted it with a GPS tracking collar. After a group of wolves were harvested in the Petersburg area in mid-November, the collared wolf swam from Mitkof Island across the Stikine River delta, traveled down the mainland and arrived on Wrangell Island. It swam to Etolin Island "shortly thereafter" on Nov. 25, said research wildlife biologist Gretchen Roffler of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G), "and it's been there ever since."

"It appears to have established a home range," she added. "It is currently breeding season for wolves -it is possible that this wolf has found a mate or has been accepted into an already-established pack." Though biologists have not yet been able to visit the wolf in its new home, Roffler is able to observe its whereabouts in real time, thanks to the GPS collar.

This behavior - leaving the pack and swimming long distances - is uncommon but not unprecedented for the species. Wolves may strike out on their own if they struggle to find opportunities to breed in their current pack, for example, but leaving home is always a risk.

Of the 20 wolves that have been tagged since the study began in 2018, only four have left their home packs. This wolf is the first to swim to a new island. "Survival rates of wolves who disperse have been found to be lower," said Roffler.

Studying wolves' travel patterns could help scientists gain a better understanding of the inbreeding that was recently discovered on Prince of Wales Island through a 2019 University of Montana study. Though the inbreeding has not yet reached crisis levels, ADF&G regional supervisor Tom Schumacher called the study's results "a red flag" in a conversation with the CoastAlaska radio network.

"When closely related animals breed together, there's a greater likelihood of passing on unfavorable traits, because both the mother and the father have those traits," he said. "And if both parents have them, they're more likely to be expressed in the offspring." The proliferation of undesirable genetic traits is called "inbreeding depression."

"If wolves aren't traveling to Prince of Wales Island very often, there aren't going to be new genes," said Roffler. Tracking the Petersburg traveling wolf's movements could help biologists "understand how gene flow occurs throughout this very island-dominated landscape."

The ongoing study could also guide the department's wildlife management decisions. The wolf harvest on Prince of Wales Island has long been controversial, as state officials and conservation groups clash over the population's sustainability. In 2020, trappers and hunters took a record-breaking 165 wolves on Prince of Wales and surrounding islands after ADF&G ended its previous quota-based system and opted to manage the hunt by limiting season length instead.

Last year, the harvest dropped significantly to 64 of the estimated 386 wolves in the area.

"These wolves are constantly being evaluated for their ability to remain viable," Roffler said. "We're really trying to collect this information so we can increase our understanding of wolves' ability to persist in ... Southeast. Forests have been heavily logged and there's concern about deer populations declining," depriving wolves of food.

The study will help biologists learn "how resilient (wolves) are to changes in their environment. Hopefully, this information can help."


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