Biologist John Burch was tracking a collared female wolf by helicopter in Alaska’s Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve on Nov. 5, 2010. Burch had captured her three years prior and designated her Wolf 227. She was once the breeding member of a pack, but her whole family had died; somehow, she had kept her territory. Now six years old, she was running with a young male wolf. Burch, who captured and collared more than 400 wolves during his career, darted her companion. The biologist fitted a GPS collar around the wolf’s neck and designated him Wolf 258. The animal was 2.5 years old, weighed 103 pounds, and was in good condition.
Burch had no idea at the time, but Wolf 258 would go on a near-continuous trek that would cover about 3,000 miles in fewer than six months. (For reference, the drive from New York City to Los Angeles is nearly 2,800 miles.) It would also end the wolf’s life. Burch was awed by the epic journey, as were other wildlife enthusiasts when the animal’s story got out. One of those was Tom Walker, a seasoned outdoorsman and wildlife photographer who recently published a book about Wolf 258 titled The Wanderer: An Alaska Wolf’s Final Journey.
Biologists began tracking wolves in the Preserve in 1993 and continue to do so today, making this the second-longest wolf study in Alaska and the third longest in the United States. Walker, Burch, other biologists and the superintendent of the Yukon-Charley assisted, and it helped that Walker had hunted, fished, rafted and photographed all over the same country that Wolf 258 was wandering at the time. But it was still a daunting project.
“I said I’d never write a wolf book because I didn’t want to get into all the crap that goes with wolves,” says Walker, who saw his first wolf near the Yukon-Charley during a caribou hunt in 1967. Later, he spent years researching, examining GPS points, and digging through weather reports and wildlife data. “When it was happening, I talked with Burch and he was blown away by the wolf’s movements, [and] he’s handled 500 or 600 wolves. I was amazed by the wolf’s journey and the final consequences. I knew I had to tell this story if I could.”
The Journey of Wolf 258
Wolf 258 had dispersed from the territory he was born into when he linked up with Wolf 227. Dispersing wolves often travel a long way when searching for a mate and territory of their own. It’s unknown where Wolf 258 came from, but Burch guessed he was born to the Preserve’s Seventymile River pack. Seventymile River wolves have a history of growing huge. Alaska’s “Wolf Man” Frank Glaser claimed to have trapped the largest wolf ever documented in Alaska, a 175-pound male with a belly full of meat, from the same drainage in 1939. A biologist captured a 140-pound wolf with an empty stomach there in 1997.
Wolf 227 appeared in excellent health in November 2010, but three months later she was dead. A wolverine had scavenged her carcass, so the cause of death was hard for Burch to decipher. He guessed starvation, a fate that had killed other members of the pack she once ran with. Another biologist figured she was injured by a moose, or that another pack of wolves killed her.
After Wolf 227 died, GPS data showed that Wolf 258 spent the next three months roaming his companion’s core territory. Then the wolf turned north on April 30, crossed the ice-choked Yukon River, and kept going. He traveled continuously, covering 25 or more miles each day until he reached the Arctic coastal plain and the Porcupine Caribou Herd’s Yukon calving grounds on June 11. Wolf 258 was in a good position to feast on newborn calves. But instead of remaining where thousands of cows were congregated and giving birth, Wolf 258 turned east on June 11 and traveled 25 miles west into Alaska, where prey was not as abundant.
Walker believes there was a high likelihood that another wolf pack ran him off. Wolves are fiercely territorial and often kill other wolves that come into their area. Wolf biologist David Mech has stated that wolves usually die one of two ways—starvation or competition with other wolves—and Walker thinks Wolf 258 was taking a serious risk by traveling through multiple territories.
“He went through the home range of hundreds of wolves and survived,” Walker says. “He must have been extremely lucky or extremely stealthy.”
Hungry in Alaska
Wolf 258 wandered across the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, including the hotly-contested 1002 area. Based on the data, Burch guessed that the wolf was rarely killing big animals. He was likely living off carrion, birds, and ground squirrels. Wolves can go days, even weeks, without eating.
He traveled hundreds of miles through the eastern Brooks Range until mid-July, when he approached the Sagavanirktok River and the Dalton Highway. He came within 2.5 miles of the road and then retreated to a giant plateau near the Franklin Bluffs. He spent the next 15 days on the plateau, which led Burch and Walker to theorize that he had linked up with another wolf.
On Aug. 4, Wolf 258 left the plateau and traveled 25 miles south, possibly with a new companion in tow. GPS data shows that he was roving ridges, drainages, and valleys in all directions. This area sees a fair number of caribou hunters, so his shortened movements might have resulted from scavenging different kill sites. He hung in the northern Brooks Range through much of September.
“For almost two months, the Wanderer had roamed an area of 1,039 square miles—a fairly typical territory for a wolf pack—and other wolves had not displaced him,” Walker writes in his book. “Biologist John Burch thought the wolf’s fidelity to a fixed territory a strong indicator that he partnered up, but he harbored doubts. The wolf’s minimal hunting success hinted he was alone.”
On Sept. 24, Wolf 258’s movements suddenly changed. He was on the Ivishak River, but by the following morning he’d traveled 27 miles south. He maintained the trajectory at a similar pace until he neared the northern bank of the Yukon River around mid-October. Burch’s interpretation of Wolf 258’s GPS data was that he rarely took down big game; now it appeared the wolf was having an even harder time getting food.
Dead Near the Dalton
On Oct. 18, Burch saw that Wolf 258’s collar transmission was in “mortality mode,” triggered by limited motion. The wolf had died within one mile of the Dalton Highway—the closest he came to a road during his entire journey. A researcher skied in to recover the body, which weighed just 69 pounds. The only contents of his stomach were tapeworms and brown fluid, and his claws had grown to nearly 2 inches long—a sign of malnutrition.
Walker estimates the total distance Wolf 258 traveled since the end of April to be 2,960 miles. He pointed out how vast and wild that country is, and how the wolf had stayed on public land the whole time. But without the help of companions, Wolf 258 was likely hungry for most of the journey.
“It’s unparalleled wilderness and supports an incredible amount of life. You couldn’t make better wolf habitat. Yet, he starved to death,” Walker said. “The power of the wolf is in the pack. A wolf on its own has a hard time making a living.”