Hunting Behavior and Habitat Selection of Wolves in a Low-density Prey System During Winter

This entry details a portion of my thesis work at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and is intended to communicate the findings of that work in a four-part series. You are reading part three examining wolf movement in the Yukon Flats, Alaska. In order to make the article concise, you  may review the general background of this work in part one. I have truncated the background and methods of this work and focused on a portion of the results.

Wolves are highly studied because they are charismatic, exhibit interesting pack behaviors, and are a key predator in the systems where they exist. Their behaviors including movement speed, movement distances, number of prey killed, and travel distances have been well documented in high prey-density systems, but practically no information exists on these behavior in low or very-low density systems. In an attempt to rectify that, a study was initiated in 2008 to understand the kill rate of moose by wolves in the Yukon Flats, Alaska, where moose are held at low densities (<0.20 per square kilometer) by predation. In an interesting twist, that study found wolves are maintaining kill rates (moose per wolf per day) similar to wolves in high prey density systems. Certainly these results counter what I would predict and lead to a natural question – how are wolves accomplishing such high kill rates in low-prey densities? A known mechanism is that wolves in the Yukon Flats keep small pack sizes to cope with low densities of prey; if you have fewer wolves in a pack, more nutrition is available per wolf during each kill. However, if wolves were traveling further or faster in this low prey-density system was unknown.  I predicted that wolves in a low prey density system were traveling further, but not faster than wolves in a high prey-density system to maintain these kill rates. I also predicted they were selecting for river corridors when traveling. 

Wolf GPS Collar
I captured the image of this wolf outfitted with a GPS collar in Denali National Park in 2014. Collars like this one were used to generate a large dataset for my work.

To understand wolf movement, I used the same dataset from the 2008 kill rate study. It was composed of Global Positioning System (GPS) collars on six packs. Thanks to diligence in the kill rate study, I knew where kills occurred along each of the paths. For each pack, I characterized if the wolves were traveling, resting, at a kill site, or revisiting a kill site. These behaviors gave me enough information to calculate the rate of speed they were traveling, the distance they were traveling, the number of days traveling to make a kill, and how long they spent at kill sites. I also using a Generalized Linear Mixed Model to understand what landscape features were important for traveling wolves.

Wolves study area
The six packs for this study were located around Beaver, Alaska.

I found some interesting results, and put them in context of 16 comparable research papers of movements of wolves in high or medium prey-density systems. I am presenting the most applicable comparisons from the literature review (i.e., systems where moose  are prey and studies where GPS collars were used)  here. I found search time was slightly longer and search distance was 2.4 times greater in my low prey-density study area. Search time and search length are correlated together given that wolves are (almost) always hunting when moving. Due to that relationship, the search time is expected to go up as search days goes up.  I found no evidence that wolves were handling prey longer or traveling faster in the low prey-density system. Those results were not surprising as one researcher found that handling time of moose was not significantly different among packs which varied in size from 2 – 20. Since wolves were not traveling faster in our system, it is probable that regardless of prey density, that on average wolves travel at their maximum comfortable speed that maximizes efficient travel.

Wolf Results
In order to understand these results in the context of other works, I did a broad search of previous studies examining wolf movements in high prey density systems. The results I present here are some of the studies that are most applicable to my results because they were GPS studies of wolf movement in systems with moose.

I also found that wolves were utilizing river corridors and that they were selecting strongly against brushy habitat. In the Yukon Flats, that means they were selecting against thick stands of alder and willow. This was similar to previous studies where they found that wolves were able to travel 2.8 times faster if they used a river corridor rather than moving through a brushy environment. By using rivers, wolves were traveling faster and are likely taking advantage of increased prey density along river corridors.

The results of this work have some useful applications in helping us broadly understand wolf behavior. First, wolf territories are very large within low prey-density wolf systems. The mechanism that creates these large territories was unknown, but long-distance movements by wolves would create large territories by default. Next, back in the mid 1980s a researcher suggested that 0.20 moose per kilometer squared was the lowest density that wolves could persist at. Within the Yukon Flats, they are already persisting at lower densities than that, and since they are able to extend their travel distances to maintain kill rates it seems a minimum prey-density threshold could be much lower. A final implication of this work is that managers should expect wolf territories to increase in size if prey density decreases. In other systems (for instance deer in the mid-west), wolf territories should inflate in size as they move further in search of prey.

I look forward to presenting part four to you soon, which ties together moose hunting by wolves and humans by starting to understand the likelihood of competition.

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