The Role of Weather and Long-Term Prey Dynamics as Drivers of Wolf Population Dynamics in a Multi-Prey System

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Bridget Borg
David Schirokauer
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As climate change accelerates in northern latitudes, there is an increasing need to understand the role of climate in influencing predator-prey systems. We investigated wolf population dynamics and numerical response in Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska, United States from 1986 to 2016 under a long-term range of varying climatic conditions and in the context of prey vulnerability, abundance, and population structure using an integrated population modeling approach. We found that wolf natality, or the number of wolves added to packs, increased with higher caribou population size, calf:cow ratio, and hare numbers, responding to a 1-year lag. Apparent survival increased in years with higher calf:cow ratios and cumulative snowfall in the prior winter, indicators of a vulnerable prey base. Thus, indices of prey abundance and vulnerability led to responses in wolf demographics, but we did not find that the wolf population responded numerically. During recent caribou and moose population increases wolf natality increased yet wolf population size declined. The decline in wolf population size is attributed to fewer packs in recent years with a few very large packs as opposed to several packs of comparable size. Our results suggest that territoriality can play a vital role in our study area on regulating population growth. These results provide a baseline comparison of wolf responses to climatic and prey variability in an area with relatively low levels of human disturbance, a rare feature in wolf habitat worldwide.