Wolf population dynamics and prey relationships in northeastern Alberta

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  • Population studies of wolves (Canis lupus) were carried out between October 1975 and June 1978 on two study areas in northern Alberta. Ten adult wolves in four packs and two lone wolves were captured, radio collared and repeatedly located in the Alberta Oil Sands Environmental Research Program (AOSERP) study area; three wolves in two packs were radio collared on the other area (Swan Hills). Telemetry data, observations of unmarked wolves, and trapper surveys indicated a winter wolf density of approximately 1/179 km2, or 140 on the entire 25 000 km2 AOSERP study area. Wolf density between areas varied with available food resources. Numbers appeared to have increased from 1975 to 1977 at a rate of about 21% annually. The wolf density of 1/77 km2 on the Swan Hills study area appeared to be lower than in past years, and the population was probably expanding. Trapping and early pup deaths were likely the major mortality factors. Wolves killed or consumed disproportionately more young, old, and probably debilitated moose (Alces alces), as well as more female calves and adult bulls. Most wolf kills in winter (88%) were made in lowland habitats despite an even distribution of moose in uplands and lowlands. Deeper snow and colder temperatures in 1978 resulted in decreased daily travel (5.7 vs. 9.0 km/day) by one pack whose activities were intensively monitored on the AOSERP study area. The mean kill rate of this pack was the same in both years (1 moose/4.7days); per capita consumption decreased slightly in 1978 (0.12 vs. 0.15 kg prey/kg wolf/day) due to larger mean pack size (9.8 vs. 9.2). The geographic distribution of wolf relocations and wolf kills shifted in 1978 to an area where moose numbers had also increased. An equation was derived for calculating true kill rates when relocation flights were spaced more than one day apart. Summer food habits of wolves, as determined by analysis of 1723 scats (2095 items) collected on cutlines, at densities, and at rendezvous sites indicated that adult moose remained the staple food in all areas. Utilization of beaver (Castor canadensis) was highest where beaver densities were highest. Wolves annually consumed about 11 to 12% of adult moose in the Muskeg River drainage (AOSERP study area); this was 70% of .annual recruitment of calves to the moose population. Wolves captured at dump sites associated with oil development were in poorer physical condition than those captured in undisturbed areas. Two lone wolves and two of the packs on the AOSERP study area were partially dependent on dumps for food during winter; predation rates by these packs were much lower. Wolf densities near disturbed sites were higher than on surrounding areas.

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