If any aspect of Alaska embodies the image of the “last frontier,” it’s the state’s animal kingdom. For millennia, Native Alaskan hunters, with their small-scale weapons and limited needs, had little impact on wildlife populations. Eskimo and Aleut villages subsisted comfortably on fish, small mammals, and one or two whales per year; the interior Athabascan bands did well on a handful of moose and caribou.
This all changed in the mid-1700s with the coming of the Russians and Americans. Sea otters, fur seals, and gray whales were quickly hunted to the verge of extinction. By the 1850s the Alaskan musk ox had been annihilated. Wolves, in part because they preyed on the same game as humans, were ruthlessly hunted.
Conservation measures have nurtured their numbers, and today Alaska boasts one of the largest concentrations of animal populations remaining on earth. For example, there are nearly twice as many caribou in Alaska as there are people. There’s a moose and a Sitka black-tailed deer for every three people. If 80,000 sheep strikes you as an impressive number, consider 40,000 grizzly bears. Bald and golden eagles are commonplace, and while the magnificent trumpeter swan was believed near extinction in the Lower 48, it was thriving in Alaska.
Marine mammals, from orcas to the recovering otters, are common (though they have recently experienced major declines in the Aleutians and western Alaska), and Alaskan waters also contain fish and other sea creatures in unimaginable quantities.
Alaska’s wildlife is a major draw for both visitors and residents. The state’s vast stretches of wilderness contain abundant mammals, birds, and fish, including some of the largest and most magnificent animals in the world. Land mammals such as brown (grizzly) and black bears, caribou, moose, Dall sheep, wolves, and musk ox are the main attractions, but the state also has incomparable populations of birds, including such favorites as bald eagles, puffins, loons, and sandhill cranes. Marine mammals include seals, Steller sea lions, and sea otters, along with beluga whales, orca (killer) whales, humpback whales, gray whales, and others.
The Alaska Wildlife Viewing Guide, by Michelle Sydeman and Annabel Lund, is a useful introduction to finding wild animals. Visit the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s website (www.wildlifeviewing.alaska.gov) for details on dozens of species of Alaskan animals in their “Wildlife Notebook” series, and for descriptions of places to see wildlife.
The state also produces regional wildlife viewing guides, along with excellent pamphlets covering various Alaskan towns and areas. Pick up copies in visitors centers around the state or find them on the website above.
In Alaska, wildlife may be encountered up close almost anywhere outdoors. Many animals are well prepared to defend their territories against intruders (you), and even the smallest can bite. Never attempt to feed or touch wildlife. It is seldom good for it, you, or those who follow. Any animal that appears unafraid or “tame” can be quite unpredictable, so keep your distance.
One thing you don’t have to worry about is snakes; there are none in Alaska. Surprisingly, however, there are frogs, even above the Arctic Circle.
© Don Pitcher from Moon Alaska, 10th Edition