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Native Pathways to Education
Alaska Native Cultural Resources
Indigenous Knowledge Systems
Indigenous Education Worldwide

Athabascan RavenAthabascan Winter Studies
The Dene'
Indigenous People of Interior

Kindergarten Unit

FNSBSD Alaska Native Education


in Alaska

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Alaska Department of Fish and Game
Wildlife Notebook Series

THE CARIBOU (Rangifer tarandus) is generally associated with the arctic tundra, mountain tundra and northern forests of North America, Russia and Scandinavia. This species has been a distinctive part of the Alaskan fauna for thousands of years and is resident throughout the state except for the Southeastern Panhandle and most offshore islands.

In Europe caribou are called reindeer, but in Alaska and Canada only the domestic forms are known by that name. All caribou and reindeer throughout the world are considered to represent a single species. Alaska has only the barren-ground subspecies, but east of the Rocky Mountains, in Canada, barren-ground and woodland caribou may be found. The barren-ground caribou generally inhabits open tundra lands near or above timberline while the woodland caribou prefers the forested lands of southern Canada.

GENERAL DESCRIPTION: Caribou are large, rather stout deer with large, concave hoofs that spread widely to support the animal in snow and soft tundra and function well as paddles when it swims. Caribou are the only members of the deer family in which both sexes grow antlers. Antlers of adult bulls are large and massive; those of adult cows are much shorter and are usually more slender and irregular. In late fall caribou are clove-brown with a white neck, rump and feet and often have a white flank stripe. The hair of newborn calves is generally reddish-brown but may range from pale beige to dark brown. Newborn calves weigh approximately 13 pounds and may double their weight in 10-15 days. Adult bulls weigh 350-400 pounds. However, weights of 700 pounds have been recorded in the Aleutian Islands. Mature females average 175-225 pounds.

LIFE HISTORY: After a summer of grazing on succulent vegetation, caribou enter the fall in prime condition and mature bulls frequently have more than three inches of fat on the back and rump. The shedding of velvet in late August and early September by large bulls marks the approach of the rutting season. The bulls cease feeding and show increasing aggressiveness that soon results in combat. Fights between bulls are seldom violent and injuries are uncommon. The peak of the breeding period in Alaska varies somewhat between herds, but most mating occurs in October. Most yearlings are capable of breeding, but the first breeding usually occurs at an age of 28-29 months. By late October adult males have exhausted their summer accumulation of fat and once again begin feeding. Bulls start to shed their antlers after the rut and most adult males are "bald" by January. Pregnant cows and young animals retain their antlers until May or June, but non-pregnant females usually shed their antlers in April.

As the spring migration begins, females and many calves of the previous year congregate as they move to the calving area. In late May or early June a single calf is born. Newborn calves can walk within an hour and after a few days can outrun a man and swim across lakes and rivers.

FOOD HABITS: Like most herd animals, the caribou must keep moving to find adequate food. This distributes feeding pressure and tends to prevent overgrazing. Caribou are not as likely to starve to death as moose or deer because if food is not available in one area, they move to another.

In summer, caribou eat a wide variety of plants, apparently favoring the leaves of willow and dwarf birch, grasses, sedges and succulent plants. As autumn frost kills off plants and foliage, they switch to lichens ("reindeer moss") and dried sedges. After a winter of lichens and dried food, caribou seek out the first new growth of spring.

MOVEMENTS: The Alaskan caribou is largely a mountain animal, associated with areas above or near timberline, but its movements are extensive and unpredictable. Areas known for many years to have great numbers may suddenly be abandoned as the herd changes its migration pattern. Such irregularities even today cause privation among the native people in Alaska and Canada who depend upon caribou for food.

Annual caribou migrations are directional, long distance treks occurring in spring and early summer as cows and young move to traditional calving grounds and then to summering areas. The bulls and some young animals follow far to the rear and scatter widely during the summer. In midsummer, caribou are often harassed by hordes of mosquitoes, warble flies and nose flies. Sometimes the animals will run in a frenzy for long distances, stopping to rest only when exhausted or when wind offers relief from the insects. In the fall and early winter, the herd assembles for the rut and then moves to wintering grounds.

POPULATION DYNAMICS: There are more than 400,000 wild caribou in Alaska distributed in 13 more or less distinct herds. At present most herds are healthy and increasing steadily, but the future can only bring a decrease in numbers. As civilization encroaches and the back country is developed, more and more valuable caribou habitat will be lost.

HUNTING: The adult bull caribou is one of the most unique and impressive trophy animals in the North. Each year several thousand nonresident hunters travel to Alaska in search of these nomads. However, the caribou's greatest value has been as a food animal and more than 10,000 caribou are harvested each year by Indian and Eskimo hunters. For many native Alaskans, the caribou is still an essential source of food.

James E. Hemming

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in Alaska

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Alaska Department of Fish and Game
Wildlife Notebook Series

THE MOOSE (Alces alces) is the largest member of the deer family in the world and the Alaska race (Alces alces gigas) is the largest of all the moose. Moose are generally associated with northern forests in North America, Europe and Russia. In Europe they are called "elk." In Alaska, they occur in suitable habitat from the Stikine River in the Panhandle to the Colville River on the arctic slope. They're most abundant in the second growth birch forests, timberline plateaus and along the major rivers of South-central and Interior Alaska.

GENERAL DESCRIPTION: Moose are improbable-appearing mammals: long-legged in the extreme, short-bodied, with a stupendous drooping nose, a useless "bell" or dewlap under the chin, no apparent tail, colored a variety of brindle browns, shading from pale yellow to almost black, depending upon the season and the age of the animal. The hair of newborn calves is generally orange-brown fading to a lighter rust color within a few weeks. Newborn calves weigh 28 to 35 pounds and grow to over 300 pounds within five months. The few adult males in prime condition that have been weighed indicate that 1.000 to 1,600 pounds is the usual range; adult females weigh 800 to 1,200 pounds. Only the bulls have antlers. The largest moose antlers in North America come from Alaska. In Alaska, trophy class bulls are found throughout the state, but the largest come from the Alaska Peninsula, lower Susitna Valley and Kenai Peninsula. Moose produce trophy-size antlers when they are six or seven years old, and may continue to produce large antlers until they are 13 or 14. In the wild, moose may live slightly more than 20 years.

LIFE HISTORY: Moose breed in the fall, with the peak of "rut" activities coming in late September and early October. Cow moose generally first breed when 16 or 28 months old. They mature at 16 months on good, uncrowded range. Calves are born in late May or early June after a gestation period of about 240 days. Older cows have twins 15 to 60 per cent of the time and triplets may occur once in every 1,000 births. The incidence of twinning is also related to range conditions. On good range more cows have twins. Most calves are born in swampy muskeg areas. A cow moose defends her newborn calf vigorously.

Calves begin taking solid food a few days after birth and are weaned in the fall, at the time the mother is breeding again. The maternal bond is not ruptured until the calves are 12 months old when the mother forcibly ejects the 400-pound "baby" from her "parturition pasture" just before she gives birth. Actually, calves three months old get along fine without their mothers as several transplant herds have been started with calves released at that age.

Adult males joust during the rut by placing their antlers together and pushing. The winner takes the female and both bulls may receive a few punctures or other damage.

By late October adult males have exhausted their summer accumulation of fat and their desire for feminine company and once again begin feeding. Antlers are shed in November, December and January --the majority in late November and early December.

FOOD HABITS: During fall and winter moose consume prodigious quantities of willow, birch and aspen, and in some areas actually establish a "hedge" or browse line six to eight feet above the ground by clipping all the terminal shoots of favored food species. Spring is the time of grazing, and moose utilize a variety of foodstuffs, particularly sedges, equisetum (horsetail), pond weeds and grasses. In some areas they feed on vegetation in shallow ponds all summer. In other situations forbs and leaves of birch, willow, alder and aspen are the main summer diet.

MOVEMENTS: Moose are often thought of as sedentary animals. They may be, but definite seasonal movements, associated with breeding, parturition and treks to favored forage areas, may cover 20 to 40 miles. A tagged moose is known to have moved 60 miles.

In mountainous areas bulls spend most of the summer and early fall at or above timberline while cows with calves prefer more dense cover at lower elevations. During the "rut" cows move toward timberline and the bulls meet them halfway. Following the rut, the sexes separate and groups of 10-20 bulls at or above timberline are not uncommon.

POPULATION DYNAMICS: Moose have a high reproductive potential and quickly fill a range to capacity. Mother Nature in effect determines how many moose will persist on a given unit of land. Deep crusted snow, when combined with tired, overutilized range, can lead to malnutrition and subsequent death of hundreds of moose and greatly decrease the survival of the succeeding year's calves.

Moose are eaten by wolves, the only effective predator on adult moose, and brown bears. Black bears take some calf moose in May and June. Several parasites may be important population controls when moose become very abundant.

HUNTING: More people hunt moose than any other of Alaska's big game species. To many people the best hunting is during September when the trees and shrubs are in full fall color and just being outdoors in Alaska is, in itself, a sufficient trophy.

ECONOMIC AND FUTURE STATUS: Because moose range over so much of Alaska, they have played an important role in the development of the state. Market hunting was once a way of life for professional hunters supplying moose meat to mining camps. Historically, moose were an important source of food, clothing and implements to Athabascan Indians dwelling along the major rivers. Today some 35,000 Alaskans and nonresidents annually harvest 9,000 to 10,000 moose --some five million pounds of meat --from a total population estimated at 130,000 to 160,000. Moose are an important part of the Alaskan landscape and thousands of tourists annually photograph those animals that feed contentedly along the highways.

Man's developments in Alaska include many alterations upon the face of the land. These activities create conflicts between man and moose, as moose eat crops, stand on airfields, eat young trees, wander city streets and collide with cars and trains.

Man's removal of mature timber through logging and careless use of fire has in general been beneficent to moose as new stands of young timber have created vast areas of high quality moose food. The future is reasonably bright if man learns to manipulate habitat and does not overprotect moose so that they can ruin their future food supply.

Robert A. Rausch
Revised and reprinted 1978

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in Alaska

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dall sheep

Alaska Department of Fish and Game
Wildlife Notebook Series

DALL SHEEP, Ovis dalli dalli, inhabit the mountain ranges of Alaska. Dall sheep are found in relatively dry country and frequent a special combination of open alpine ridges, meadows, and steep slopes with extremely rugged "escape terrain" in the immediate vicinity. They use the ridges, meadows, and steep slopes for feeding and resting. When danger approaches they flee to the rocks and crags to elude pursuers. They are high country animals and are seldom found below timberline in Alaska.

Male Dall sheep are called rams; they have massive curling horns. The females are called ewes and have shorter, more slender, slightly curved horns. Rams resemble ewes until they are about three years old, after that continued horn growth makes them easily recognizable. Horns grow steadily during spring, summer, and early fall. In late fall or winter horn growth slows and eventually ceases, probably because of changes in body chemistry during the rut, or breeding season. This yearly stopping of horn growth results in a pattern of rings or annuli spaced along the length of the horn. These annual rings can be distinguished from other rough corrugations on the sheep's horns, and a sheep's age can be accurately determined by counting these horn rings or annuli (see sketch). Dall rams as old as 16 years have been killed by hunters, and ewes have been known to reach the age of 19 years, but usually a 12 year-old sheep is con-sidered very old. As rams mature their horns form a circle when seen from the side. Ram horns reach half a circle in about two or three years, 3/4 of a circle in four to five years, and a full circle or "curl" in seven to eight years.

LIFE HISTORY: The young, called lambs, are born in late May or early June. As lambing approaches, ewes seek solitude and protection from predators in the most rugged cliffs available on their spring ranges. Ewes bear a single lamb, and the ewe-lamb pairs remain in the lambing cliffs a few days until the lambs are strong enough to travel. Lambs begin feeding on vegetation within a week after birth and are usually weaned by October. Normally, ewes have their first lamb at age three and produce a lamb annually. In stressed populations, ewes frequently begin lambing on their second birthday and then produce lambs in alternate years. More will be learned about this difference as research continues.

Sheep have well developed social systems. Adult rams live in bands which associate with ewe groups only during the mating season in late November and early December. The horn clashing for which rams are so well known does not result from fights over possession of ewes, but is a means of establishing social order. These clashes occur throughout the year (and also among females) on an occasional basis. They occur more frequently just before the rut when rams are moving among the ewes and meeting rams from groups other than their own. Dall rams can sire offspring at 18 months of age, but normally they do not participate in breeding or social activities until they approach dominance rank (at full curl age and size).

FOOD HABITS: The diet of Dall sheep vary from range to range, but they feed primarily on grasses and sedges. Dur-ing summer, food is abundant, and a wide variety of plants are consumed. Winter diet is much more limited and con-sists primarily of dry, frozen grass and sedge stems available when snow is blown off the winter ranges. Some popula-tions use significant amounts of lichen and moss during winter. Most Dall sheep populations visit mineral licks during the spring and often travel many miles to eat the soil at these unusual geological formations. Soil eating may be caused by a mineral deficiency or imbalance that results from the poor quality of winter food. As several different popula-tions meet at mineral licks, ram and ewe populations mingle and young rams join the ram band which happens to be present at the time. This random contribution of young rams to different ram bands benefits the sheep by maintaining genetic diversity. Sheep are very loyal to their home ranges; after joining a social group, sheep are never known to leave it. Mineral licks are good spots to observe sheep because the animals are so intent on eating the dirt they pay little attention to humans. However, major disturbances such as low-flying aircraft or operating machinery readily drive sheep from the mineral licks.

POPULATIONS:Dall sheep in Alaska are generally in good population health. The remoteness of their habitat and its unsuitability for human use protected Dall sheep from most problems in the past. However, increasing human population and more human use of alpine areas may cause future problems for Dall sheep. Mountain sheep in general are extremely susceptible to diseases introduced by domestic livestock.

If grazing of domestic sheep (or possibly cattle) occurs on their ranges, mass die-offs from disease can be reasonably expected, Currently, biologists believe the number of Dall sheep in Alaska is about 70,000. Thirty thousand of these live in the Brooks Range, 15,000 in the Alaska Range, 16,000 in the Wrangell Mountains, 5,000 on the Kenai Penin-sula and the Chugach Mountains with which it is connected, and 3,000 in the Talkeetna Mountains. The ancestral habitat for Dall sheep, the Tanana-Yukon uplands, now contains an estimated 1,000 Dall sheep.

Sheep typically exist at stable population levels in approximate equilibrium with their habitat resources. Large popula-tion fluctuations do occur, however, usually as a result of infrequent catastrophic weather events. These events are more likely in maritime climates, and history indicates they can be expected once in about every 50 years. Low birth rates, predations, primarily by wolves, coyotes, and eagles, and a difficult environment tend to keep Dall sheep population growth rates lower than for many other big game species. However, their adaptation to the unchanging alpine environment seems to serve them well. They have survived for thousands of years and are among the more suc-cessful animal groups.

HUNTING: Dall sheep produce excellent meat but are relatively small in size (usually less than 300 pounds for rams and 150 pounds for ewes) and it is difficult to retrieve meat from the rugged alpine areas which they inhabit. These factors have limited sheep hunting to a relatively few, hardy individuals whose interest is more in the challenges and satisfactions of mountain hunting and the alpine experience than in getting food. In some communities of the Brooks Range, Dall sheep are hunted for subsistence. These hunts commonly take place during winter when snow machine travel makes it easier to reach the sheep and retrieve the meat. Recreational hunting is limited to the taking of mature rams during August and September; subsistence regulations commonly allow taking of all sex and age classes of sheep. Population which support subsistence hunting must be closely watched to assure that populations are not overex-ploited. Many recreational hunters are very selective and choose not to kill a ram unless it is unusually attractive, choosing to watch sheep and share their environment instead. Likewise, viewers and photographers of Dall sheep are attracted by the animals and their environment. Photography of Dall sheep is popular for many visitors and residents of Alaska and is not limited by season.

Wayne E. Heimer

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in Alaska

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black bear

Alaska Department of Fish and Game
Wildlife Notebook Series

BLACK BEARS, Ursus americanus, are the most abundant and widely distributed of the three species of bears in America and have been recorded in all states except Hawaii. In Alaska, blacks occur over most of the forested areas of the State. They are not found on the Seward Peninsula or north of the Brooks Range. They also are absent from some of the large islands of the Gulf of Alaska, notably Kodiak, Montague, Hinchinbrook and others, and from the Alaska Peninsula beyond the area of Lake Iliamna. In Southeastern Alaska, black bears occupy most islands with the exception of Admiralty, Baranof, Chichagof and Kruzof. These are inhabited by brown bears. Both species occur on the Southeastern mainland. They are most often associated with forests, but depending on the season of the year, they may be found from sea level to alpine areas.

GENERAL DESCRIPTION: The black is the smallest of the North American bears. Adult bears stand about 26 inches at the shoulders and measure about 60 inches from nose to tail. The tail is about two inches long. Males are usually larger than females. An "average" adult male in summer weighs about 180-200 pounds. They are considerably lighter when they emerge from winter dormancy and may be twenty percent heavier in the fall when they are fat.

The color of this bear over its entire range varies from jet black to white. A very rare white or creamy phase occurs on Gribble Island and vicinity in British Columbia. Three colors are common in Alaska. Black is the most often encountered color but brown or cinnamon bears are often seen in Southcentral Alaska. The rare blue or glacier phase may be seen in the Yakutat area and has been reported from other areas. Nearly all blacks have a patch of white hair on the fronts of their chests.

Blacks, even the white color phase, always have brown muzzles. They are most easily distinguished from brown/grizzlies by their straight facial profile and their claws which are sharply curved and seldom over one and one-half inches in length. Positive identification can be made by measuring the upper rear molar which is never more than one and one-fourth inches wide in the black bear and is never less than that in the brown/grizzly bear. The size of black bears is often overestimated.

Black bears have very poor eyesight but their senses of smell and hearing are well-developed.

LIFE HISTORY: Mating takes place in June-July. Apart from that time, blacks are usually solitary, except for sows with cubs. Cubs are born the following February-March while their mothers are in their dens. The gestation period is about seven months. The cubs are blind, nearly hairless and weigh only a few ounces at birth. Upon emerging from the den in May they weigh about five pounds and are covered with fine wooly hair. They are able to follow their mothers quite well. One to four cubs may be born but two is the usual number. Cubs apparently remain with their mothers through the first winter follow-ing their birth. Apparently sows breed yearly. Bears become sexually mature at three to four years of age.

FOOD HABITS: Black bears are creatures of opportunity when it comes to matters of food. There are, however, certain patterns of food-seeking which they follow. Upon emergence in the spring, freshly sprouted green vegetation is the main food item, but blacks will readily take anything they encounter. Things such as winter-killed animals are readily eaten, and in some areas black bears have been found to be effective predators on newborn moose calves. As summer progresses, feeding shifts to salmon if they are available. In areas without salmon, bears rely primarily on vegetation throughout the year. Berries, especially blueberries, are an important late summer-fall food item. Bears are cannibalistic on occasion.

WINTER DORMANCY: As with brown/grizzly bears, black bears spend the winter months in a state of semi-hibernation. Their body temperature drops, their metabolic rate is reduced and they sleep for long periods. This is not considered true hibernation as they do occasionally emerge from their dens. Bears enter this dormancy period in the fall, after most food items become hard to find and emerge again in the spring, when food is again available. In the northern part of their range, bears may be dormant for as long as seven to eight months. Females with cubs usually emerge later than lone bears. Dens may be found from sea level to alpine areas.

HUMAN UTILIZATION: Over most of Alaska, blacks are hunted as game animals. At one time they were classified as fur-bearers and were heavily utilized as such. Now there is a growing appreciation for them as a trophy animal. Blacks are so common and widely distributed that they often cause damage at homesteads, construction camps, or even in towns, and are destroyed as nuisance animals. These depredation kills can be minimized or eliminated if garbage and other food items which attract them to camps and residences are eliminated. In some localities of Alaska, black bears are themselves sought as food. In the community of Huslia, for instance, hibernating bears are killed, cooked and eaten by the men and boys of the community in a traditional dinner.

The best bear hunting areas are probably from the tidal areas in Prince William Sound southward through the panhandle of Alaska. In these areas, bears are spotted from boats as they forage on the beach. Late May through early June is usually the best time for such hunting. The pelts of spring black bears make beautiful trophies if taken before they start to shed.

If bear flesh is utilized for human food, it must be well-cooked as Alaskan bears have been known to have trichinosis. This disease is transmitted by eating infected meat that is not cooked thoroughly.

DANGER TO HUMANS: Bears are extremely powerful animals and potentially dangerous to humans. They are usually highly cautious and secretive, but if they have a food supply, they may defend it against all intruders. Bears are found in highly urbanized areas every year, in downtown Anchorage and Fairbanks. Encounters with humans, especially near garbage dumps, fish drying racks, etc., frequently occur. However, sows with cubs must always be respected. A rule of thumb is: never come between or near a mother bear and her young. She will attack.

Normally, these bears snort in a characteristic way and move off. They have, however, attacked without apparent provoca-tion. Several persons have been victims of these unprovoked attacks. People have been maimed and some have been killed every year as a result of such an encounter with a black bear. In general, all bears should be considered as potentially dangerous and should be treated with respect.

Loyal Johnson
Reprinted 1984


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in Alaska.

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Alaska Department of Fish and Game
Wildlife Notebook Series

THE BEAVER (Castor canadensis) is North America's largest rodent. It is found throughout most of the forested portions of the state, including Kodiak Island where it was transplanted in 1925.

GENERAL DESCRIPTION: Beavers in the wild live about 10 to 12 years. In captivity they have been known to live as long as 19 years. Throughout their lives they continue to grow and may reach three to four feet (0.9 to 1.2 m) long, including tail. Although most adult beavers weigh 40 to 70 pounds (17.1 to 31.7 kg), very old, fat beavers can weigh up to 100 pounds, or 45 kg.

The beaver's heavy chestnut brown coat over a warm, soft underfur keeps the animal comfortable in all temperatures. Its large, webbed feet and broad, black tail (about 10 inches long and six inches wide, or 25 cm long and 15 cm wide) can be used as a rudder when swimming. When slapped against the water it serves as a sign of warning, but it can be used as a signal for other emotions as well. When the beaver stands up on its hind legs to cut down a tree, the tail is like a fifth leg used for balance.

A perfectly designed swimmer, the beaver's nose and ear valves close automatically under water. Beavers' lips are loose so they can be drawn tightly behind the protruding teeth. In this way a submerged beaver can cut and chew wood without getting water in its mouth.

LIFE HISTORY: Beavers must be assured of two or three feet (0.6 to 0.9 m) of water year-round. Water serves as a refuge from their enemies and they build canals to float and transport heavy objects (food and lumber). Food for winter use must be stored under water as well.

If the habitat does not have the necessary water level, beavers construct dams. Each dam is a little different. A beaver works alone or with family members to build a dam. They pile logs and trees and secure them with mud, masses of plants, rocks and sticks. Although the average size used for construction of a dam is four to twelve inches (10 to 30 cm) across the stump, use of trees up to 150 feet (45 m) tall and five feet(115 m) across have been recorded. As the tree snaps, the beaver runs! Very large trees are not moved but the bark is stripped off and eaten. Smaller trees are cut into movable pieces, dragged into the water and through their canals, and finally used for repairing dams and lodges. This work is done mainly in autumn.

The den is used as a food cache, rearing area and general home. Dens are for two types depending on water level fluctuations. Some are simply dug into the stream bank and others are lodges constructed of sticks and mud.

Where streams are too large or swift to dam but provide ample water throughout the year, the beavers may burrow into a bank. These may have several tunnel exits with at least one above high water mark and another below low water mark. The den itself is a large chamber averaging two feet wide by three feet long by three feet high (60 cm by 90 cm by 90 cm).

Stick lodges are the homes for most beavers in Alaska. These lodges never look alike, but they have two things in common: (1) the bank dens have one chamber-like room, (2) at least one tunnel exit is in deep water so it will be free of winter ice. This also provides quick and easy access for food gathering and emer-gency escape from predators. Each year beavers will add materials to the lodge whether or not repairs are necessary. The same lodge is used by a beaver family year after year so some can be quite large. It is the family's home year-round.

After mating (which takes place in January or February) the female prepares for a new litter. One to six kits are born in late April to June. Their eyes are open at birth and they are covered with soft fur. They can swim immediately. The young beavers live with their parents until they are two years old. Then they leave to find their own homes.

FOOD HABITS AND PREDATORS: Life in a beaver colony depends largely on food supply. Beavers eat not only tree bark, but also aquatic plants of all kinds, roots and grasses. As they exhaust the food supply in the area, the beavers must roam farther from their homes. This increases the danger from predators. When an area is cleared of food, the family migrates to a new home. In Alaska wolves, lynx, wolverine, bears and of course humans are important predators of beavers.

ECOLOGY AND ECONOMIC IMPORTANCE: As beavers cut down small trees and clear away brush, they provide places that are ideal food patches for some animals. Waterfowl might use these spots as feeding and nesting grounds, and ponds created by beavers often serve as fish habitat. Occasionally beaver dams may block streams to migrating anadromous fish like salmon, and at times road culverts may be blocked or other human developments flooded by this industrious animal.

In the past beaver pelts were so important they were used as a trade medium in place of money. Between 1853 and 1877, the Hudson Bay Company sold almost three million beaver pelts to England. In Alaska today, trappers still take the furs. They are highly-prized for cold weather coats and hats.

Peter Shepherd

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in Alaska

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Alaska Department of Fish and Game
Wildlife Notebook Series

THE MUSKRAT (Ondotra zibethica) occurs throughout most of Alaska's mainland except some islands of southeastern Alaska, the Alaska Peninsula west of Ugashik Lakes and the Arctic Slope north of the Brooks Range. The highest populations of muskrat are in the broad floodplains and deltas of the major rivers and in marshy areas dotted with small lakes.

Muskrats are one of Alaska's most visible fur-bearers and rank first in numbers of animals harvested in Alaska and among the top five in value. Four-fifths of the muskrats harvested in Alaska are taken in five areas: the Yukon Flats surrounding Fort Yukon, Minto Flats, Tetlin Lakes, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and the Selawik-Kobuk-Noatak area. Muskrats are common in ponds and lakes along the road systems in the Southcentral and interior parts of Alaska.

GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS: Often mistaken at first glance for the beaver, the muskrat's small size--only two to four pounds--and its long, scaly rat-like tail are the most immediate identification marks. They are 10 to 14 inches in length, excluding their 8- to 11-inch tails. Their coats consist of soft, dense under-fur and long, coarse, shining guard hairs which produce the dominant color of the upper parts. Coloration ranges from a medium silvery brown to dark brown with a lighter belly. The feet and tail are dark brown or black. In open, swampy areas muskrats construct houses of vegetation piled into mounds two to three feet above the surface of the water and five to six feet in diameter. They also tunnel into earth banks. Their nests are well above high water and have tunnels exiting underwater below the lowest freezing level. Muskrats construct slides and make fairly well-defined channels through vegetation along banks of streams and ponds.

LIFE HISTORY: Muskrats have both a high reproductive and population turnover rate. Mature females usually have two litters per year and annually give birth to 15 young, or seven to eight per litter.

Mating begins as soon as there is open water in the spring; in interior Alaska this date may range from late April to mid-May and the young resulting from this first mating are born in early to mid-June. Females mate again three to five days after the birth of the first litter. Their second litter is born about 25 days later. Thus there are two peaks in breeding activity separated by about 30 days.

Evidence indicates that male muskrats remain at the same den with the female for several weeks. The young are weaned at about one month of age, but may stay with the parents for a while longer. Second litters often over-winter in the same den with their parents. Muskrats' sexual maturity is reached at about nine to ten months of age.

FOOD HABITS: Muskrats are basically herbivorous and feed mainly on aquatic plants such as the roots and stems of cattails, lilies, sedges and grass. They may occasionally eat some animal life such as mussels, shrimp and small fish. Vegetation is collected and stored during the summer for winter use. Throughout the winter muskrats remained below the ice for great periods of time eating this stored food and submerged vegetation. They extend their feeding areas by constructing "pushups" which are piles of vegetation deposited on the surface of the ice over an opening. Muskrats bring vegetation to these pushups and eat it there. Continual use keeps the pushups free of ice.

As the ice increases in thickness during the winter, less and less area is available for foraging. Muskrats are forced to leave shallow ponds or spend their time in deeper ponds to search for food. Deep ponds and channels often have less aquatic vegetation than shallower ones, thus they can support fewer muskrats. As muskrats compete for deeper areas, food supplies are depleted rapidly. This may result in exhaustion of food supplies and consequent fighting, starvation or emigration of the muskrats. There are seldom any unoccupied living spaces available and the emigrants may freeze, starve or are killed by predators.

ECONOMIC USE: The open season for harvesting muskrats in most of Alaska begins around November 1 and closes between the end of May and the 10th of June, though practically all muskrats are taken in the last month of the season. The fall and winter season was initiated to encourage the harvest of muskrats before they were lost to "winter kill," but there is little trapping then. Eighty percent of the muskrats harvested in Alaska are taken with a .22-caliber rifle. A small amount of trapping (which is far more time-consuming than shooting) takes place in the spring before ice breakup. Only a small proportion of the total muskrat habitat is hunted or trapped. Transportation during the open season is almost entirely by boat, and only the larger streams, ponds and lakes that can be reached by short portages are hunted. Unhunted areas act as natural reservoirs of muskrat populations which serve to repopulate heavily harvested areas. Muskrat fur is beautiful and durable and the meat of muskrats is very tasty and very usable as human food.

OBSERVATION: During the summer, muskrats may be observed going about their daily activities in just about every roadside pond and slough where there is suitable vegetation as a food source. Often the casual observer will hear a big splash and see something swimming around in the water, giving the impression that the pond is inhabited by large fish which are jumping and surfacing. Indeed, sometimes there are large pike in the grassy sloughs feeding on an occasional muskrat! If the viewer sits quietly by the edge of the pond or slough, the resident muskrats will soon go about their business, providing hours of entertainment.

Jean Ernest

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in Alaska

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Alaska Department of Fish and Game
Wildlife Notebook Series

THERE ARE TWO SPECIES of hares in Alaska, both of which turn white in the winter. THE SNOWSHOE, or varying hare (Lepus americanus) is the most common and widespread of these. It is distributed over the state except for the lower Kuskokwim Delta, the Alaska Peninsula and the area north of the Brooks Range. It is sparsely distributed along the Southeastern mainland except for major river deltas. THE TUNDRA, or arctic, hare (Lepus 0thus) populates much of the western coast of Alaska, including the Alaska Peninsula, but has a spotty distribution along the arctic coast and the north slope of the Brooks Range.

Hares are often called "rabbits" and both are members of the family Leporidae. However, hares are born fully furred and with eyes open, while newborn rabbits are blind and hairless. Newborn hares are soon able to hop around and leave the nest, but the helpless baby rabbits do not even open their eyes for seven to 10 days.

GENERAL DESCRIPTION: Snowshoe hares are somewhat larger than a cottontail rabbit (Genus Sylvila-gus). They average around 18 to 20 inches in total length and weigh three to four pounds. In summer the coat is yellowish to grayish brown with white underparts, and the tail is brown on top. This coat is shed and replaced by white pelage in winter, but the hairs are dusky at the base and the underfur is gray. The ears are dark at the tips. The large hind feet are well-furred, adapting these animals for the deep snows of the boreal forests--hence the name "snowshoe."

The arctic hare is larger 22 to 28 inches in length and weighs six to 12 pounds. The winter coat of this large hare is long and the fur is white to the base. Edges of the ears are blackish. In summer the coat is grayish brown above and white below, with a whitish base to the hairs. The tail is entirely white.

LIFE HISTORY: Snowshoe hares breed at about one year of age, and have two to three litters per year. The gestation period is 36 to 37 days. First litters are born around the middle of May in Interior Alaska, and average about four leverets (young hares). The second litter, in years of increasing abundance, often averages six young, and occasionally there is a third litter. Females breed immediately after the birth of a litter.

The leverets are born in an unlined depression or "form." They weigh about two ounces at birth and can walk by the time their fur is dry. In a day or two they are wandering about the nest, and in less than two weeks will be eating green vegetation. They nurse for about a month. The color pattern of the young snowshoe is similar to the summer pattern of adults.

Breeding habits of the arctic hare are similar, but the reproductive season usually begins later and there is probably only one litter per year. The leverets are darker than the adults, with a black tinge to their fur.

HABITS: Snowshoe hares are found in mixed spruce forests, wooded swamps and brushy areas. They feed on a wide variety of plant material--grasses, buds, twigs and leaves in the summer and spruce twigs and needles, bark and buds of hardwood such as aspen and willow in the winter. The arctic hare is generally found on windswept rocky slopes and upland tundra, often in groups. These big hares usually avoid low-lands and wooded areas. They feed on willow shoots and various dwarf arctic plants.

Hares are most active at dusk and dawn. They do not dig burrows or build nests, but use natural shelters and depressions and-rest under branches or bushes. The snowshoe hare travels about on well-established trails or runways which become deeply worn in the snow or forest floor. It is interesting that the winter trails through the deep snow follow the summer pathways.

Populations of snowshoe hares are subject to cycles of high abundance and scarcity. The population in an area will build up over a period of years to a peak of abundance, followed by a sudden decline to a very low level. During periods of peak abundance there are as many as 600 animals per square mile of range. The exact cause or causes for the decline are unknown; some possibilities are shock disease due to stress, disease, parasites or a combination of these.

ECONOMIC IMPORTANCE: Snowshoe hares are one of the more important food items of northern furbearers, particularly lynx. They are often an important source of food for Alaskans. The arctic hare is also important as a source of food and fur.

In times of great abundance the snowshoes may kill brush by overbrowsing. In "high" years they may compete with big game animals such as moose for forage.

Both species of hares offer a great deal of recreation for the small game hunter, especially in years of abundance. The arctic hare provides an unusual trophy and a considerable amount of meat. The snowshoe is available to more hunters, and can be taken near highway systems and in such disturbed areas as mine tailing piles. Hares are best hunted with a shotgun and birdshot, or .22-caliber rifle or handgun. Early snowfalls will often catch the snowshoe hare still in its summer coat, making it vulnerable to the hunter. The meat is quite tasty.

Hunters should be alert for signs of tularemia, a bacterial disease found in hares and rodents throughout the world. Such signs include general sluggishness and spots on the liver and spleen. Normal sanitary precautions should be taken when handling hares and rubber gloves used when cleaning and dressing them. The meat should be cooked thoroughly.

Jeannette R. Ernest

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in Alaska

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Alaska Department of Fish and Game
Wildlife Notebook Series

THE PORCUPINE (Erethizon dorsatum), commonly known as "porky," "hedgehog" or "quill pig," is second in size only to the beaver among the rodents of Alaska. Fossilized remains of porky and his im-mediate ancestors indicate that he has been a part of the North American fauna since the late Cenozoic era, or about 20 to 30 million years.

GENERAL DESCRIPTION: This stout, short-legged animal is 25 to 31 inches long and, except for the foot pads and nose, is covered with hair and quills of varying length. The hair on the belly is sparse. The color varies from black to brown. The tips of the long guard hairs are lighter and give the coat hues of yel-low or white. The tail is short and thick and heavily covered with quills. The average weight of an adult porcupine varies between 15 and 18 pounds, but certain individuals will weigh up to 25 pounds. The peculiar pelage of the porcupine makes it unique among the mammals of the Western Hemisphere. The quills are hollow, modified hairs which are well barbed on as much as two-thirds of the outer end. Quills from different parts of the body vary in length, flexibility, color, shaft diameter and scaliness.

LIFE HISTORY: Breeding takes place in November, with a male usually breeding with only one female. After a gestation period of about 16 weeks, a single offspring is born. At birth, the young porcupine weighs between one and two pounds and is about 10 inches long.

Its eyes are open and its body is covered with long, grayish-black hairs. Within a matter of hours, the devel-oping quills are dry and serve as protection. The young porky is then capable of following the female. The newly born porcupine nurses for a day or two and is then able to eat vegetation. At the end of the first summer, the young porcupine weighs about three to three and a half pounds and is about 18 inches long. Porcupines mature at three years of age and then wander long distances from the home den.

Being an opportunist when it comes to shelter, the porcupine utilizes any natural cavity which protects it from the elements. Such shelters are rock or earth dens, cavities under deadfalls, roots, stumps or hollow logs.

Ordinarily, the porcupine relies largely upon its sense of smell for most of its activities. Hearing seems to be fairly good but its sight has been reported as poor. Porcupines sometimes whine and utter low grunts.

In general, the coat hairs and quills serve as protection against inclement weather and predators. Depending upon the structure and location on the body, they also function as touch receptors, sexual stimulators and support for climbing.

Porcupines are normally nocturnal. However, they can be seen slowly plodding about at any time of day. Tree climbing is generally slow and awkward. As it methodically hitches its way up a tree, it may use the stiff bristles on the undersurface of its tail as a support. Thus, the lower tail bristles are often considerably worn by the use of the tail for climbing and balancing.

FOOD: Spruce bark is a major part of the diet and may be considered the porcupine's primary food in the winter. Birch also is important. In the summer, a wide variety and abundance of green leaves, buds and aquatic plants are eaten in preference to bark. Porcupines are especially fond of the salty taste of perspira-tion on axe handles, canoe paddles and shovels. They also feed upon discarded antlers and the bones of dead animals and thus obtain phosphorus and calcium.

PREDATION AND DEFENSE: Most carnivores would not pass up a good meal of porcupine. However, an encounter between a young or inexperienced predator or dog and a porcupine can be a very painful exper-ience for the predator. Many unfortunate carnivores have painfully starved to death with a mouthful of quills. Not only is the skin surface of the animal involved, but the barbed quills also work their way into the tissues. Predators usually can kill porcupines only by flipping them on to their backs where the soft, quill-less belly can be ripped open. The animal is then eaten, leaving an empty, quill-covered sack. This method of killing porcupines is commonly practiced by fishers and occasionally by lynx, wolves, coyotes and wolverine.

When the animal is relaxed, the hair and quills lie flat and point backward. When startled, the porcupine can draw up the skin of the back to expose the quills. If touched on the hind quarters, it may flip its tail, thus adding force to drive quills into its attacker. Unlike other animals when faced with danger, the porcupine presents its most formidable bristling back. Thus, the attacker faces a nearly impenetrable forest of quills. Although a porcupine cannot throw its quills, loose quills may be dislodged and this could give the impres-sion that they are being thrown.

ECONOMIC IMPORTANCE: Because of its slow, ploddy movements, the porcupine can be readily ap-proached and killed with a club. This trait is detrimental to the individual animal but it has saved the lives of many starving trappers and prospectors. This in itself is reason enough to give the animal a certain amount of protection in case such emergencies arise. Although the meat is not the most palatable, it is edible and at times is a very welcome addition to the diet.

Quills were utilized for decoration at one time by most of the Indian tribes of Interior Alaska. They were dyed with locally obtainable vegetable materials, flattened and then sewn into skin clothing and other items.

Porcupines can be very injurious to mature forests and reforestation projects because they feed on the bark and growing layer during the winter and on the buds, leaves and tender branches during the summer. When such problems occur, control may be justified. However, needless killing or eradication should be discour-aged. Porcupines are an integral part of the Alaskan faunal scene and should not be thought of as pests merely because they are not as economically important to man as some other species.

Dennis Bromley
Revised and reprinted 1978

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in Alaska

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king salmon

Alaska Department of Fish and Game
Wildlife Notebook Series

THE KING SALMON (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) is Alaska's state fish and is one of the most important sport and commercial fish native to the Pacific coast of North America. It is the largest of all Pacific salmon with weights of individual fish commonly exceeding 30 pounds. A 126-pound king salmon taken in a fish trap near Petersburg, Alaska in 1949 is the largest on record.

The king salmon has numerous local names. In Washington and Oregon, king salmon are called Chinook, while in British Columbia they are called spring salmon. Other names are quinnat, tyee, tule and blackmouth.

RANGE: In North America, king salmon range from the Monterey Bay area of California to the Chukchi Sea area of Alaska. On the Asian coast, king salmon occur from the Anadyr River area of Siberia southward to Hokkaido, Japan.

In Alaska, it is abundant from the Southeastern panhandle to the Yukon River. Major populations return to the Yukon, Kuskokwim, Nushagak, Susitna, Kenai, Copper, Alsek, Taku and Stikine rivers. Important runs also occur in many smaller streams.

GENERAL DESCRIPTION: Adults are distinguished by the black irregular spotting on the back and dorsal fins and on both lobes of the caudal or tail fin. King salmon also have a black pigment along the gum line which gives them the name "blackmouth" in some areas.

In the ocean, the king salmon is a robust, deep-bodied fish with a bluish-green coloration on the back which fades to a silvery color on the sides and white on the belly. Colors of spawning king salmon in fresh water range from red to copper to almost black, depending on location and degree of maturation. Males are more deeply colored than the females and also are distinguished by their "ridgeback" condition and by their hooked nose or upper jaw. Juveniles in fresh water are recognized by well-developed parr marks which are bisected by the lateral line.

LIFE HISTORY: Like all species of Pacific salmon, king salmon are anadromous. They hatch in fresh water, spend part of their life in the ocean and then spawn in fresh water. All kings die after spawning.

King salmon may become sexually mature from their second through seventh year and as a result, fish in any spawning run may vary greatly in size. For example, a mature three-year-old will probably weigh less than four pounds, while a mature seven-year-old may exceed 50 pounds.

Females tend to be older than males at maturity. In many spawning runs, males outnumber females in all but the six- and seven-year age groups. Small kings that mature after spending only one winter in the ocean are commonly referred to as "jacks" and are usually males. Alaska streams normally receive a single run of king salmon in the period from May through July.

King salmon often make extensive freshwater spawning migrations to reach their home streams in some of the larger river systems. Yukon River spawners bound for the extreme headwaters in Yukon Territory, Canada, will travel more than 2,000 river miles during a 60-day period.

King salmon do not feed during the freshwater spawning migration so their condition deteriorates gradually during the spawning run as they utilize stored body materials for energy and for the development of reproductive products.

Each female deposits from 3,000 to 14,000 eggs in several gravel nests, or redds, which she excavates in relatively deep, moving water. In Alaska, the eggs usually hatch in late winter or early spring, depending on time of spawning and water temperature.

The newly hatched fish, called alevins, live in the gravel for several weeks until they gradually absorb the food in the attached yolk sac. These juveniles, called fry, wiggle up through the gravel by early spring.

In Alaska, most juvenile king salmon remain in fresh water until the following spring when they migrate to the ocean in their second year of life. These seaward migrants are called smolts.

Juvenile kings in fresh water first feed on plankton, then later eat insects. In the ocean, they eat a variety of organisms including herring, pilchard, sandlance, squid and crustaceans. Salmon grow rapidly in the ocean and often double their weight during a single summer season.

COMMERCIAL FISHERY: Worldwide king salmon catches during 1967-71 averaged slightly more than 3.5 million fish per year. The United States harvested approximately 52 per cent of these fish, while Canada took 33 per cent; Japan 12 per cent and Russia 3 per cent. Alaska's annual harvest during this period averaged about 639,000 fish per year, or about 21 per cent of the North American catch. The majority of the Alaska catch is made in the Southeastern, Bristol Bay and Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim areas. Fish taken commercially average about 18 pounds. The majority of the catch is made with troll gear and gill nets.

There is an excellent market for king salmon because of their large size and excellent table qualities. Recent catches in Alaska have had first wholesale pack values approaching $6 million and brought fishermen nearly $4 million per year.

SUBSISTENCE AND SPORT FISHERY: Catches by Eskimo and Indian subsistence fishermen in the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers have averaged about 60,000 king salmon annually in recent years. The king salmon is perhaps the most highly prized sport fish in Alaska and is extensively fished by anglers in the Southeastern and Cook Inlet areas. Trolling with rigged herring is the favored method of angling in salt water while lures and salmon eggs are used by freshwater anglers. The sport fishing harvest of king salmon is over 26,000 annually with Cook Inlet and adjacent watersheds contributing over half of the catch.

Ron Regnart
Stan Kubik
Revised and reprinted 1978

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Last modified August 17, 2006