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Alaska: Where Frontier Wildlife Live On

Posted by Mary-Frances Walsh on 2/18/2016
Posted in: Tauck’s Travelogue
Tags: Tauck, Travel, USA, Wild Life

alaska_wildlife_introWhen Disneyland shared the news that some Frontierland attractions would be closed in 2016, I began thinking about the changed nature of the Western frontier. The West is where young men were once told to go, with a promise of natural riches: abundant beauty, resources and wildlife. And the good news is that in Alaska, natural beauty, resources and wildlife are thriving under careful watch.  

Most of us recognize that the Earth's natural beauty and resources are not unlimited. And while wildlife experts have identified species that are either endangered or threatened even in Alaska, the state’s frontier-land attractions will not be shut down any time soon.

National parks cover some 54 million acres of Alaskan land. These include Lake Clark National Park, where the salmon run and bears forage; Kenai Fjords National Park, where wildlife thrives in glacier-fed waters; and Denali National Park, where forest, tundra and mountains provide a safe haven for wild animals big and small. (Not to mention it’s home to Denali, the tallest peak in North America!)

Importantly, Alaska is huge; the state covers as much land as one-fifth of the “lower 48” U.S. states. It has a 2,000-mile-long salmon run (the longest in the world), and the world’s largest concentration of bald eagles. It’s also a last vestige for animals whose existence is endangered or threatened elsewhere.

When it comes to experiencing wildlife, Alaska remains one of the best possible places in the world. This makes it a privilege, one that shouldn’t be missed. But before heading off, here are a few things you might like to know about the wildlife that you may have the chance to see up close:
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Summer: This is when bears and other animals concentrate around Alaska’s rivers and streams to feed on spawning salmon. It’s when fawns are born, moose cows and their calves frequent Alaskan roadsides and sea lions bear their young in coastal rookeries.  

Caribou: Distinguished by their long main antlers and concave hoofs that let them “shovel” snow and soft tundra, more than 3,000 caribou migrate across the state each year. Chances are good that you will see them.

Sea Otters: Some 90% of the world’s population lives along coastal Alaska. Nearly hunted to extinction for their furs in the 1800s, these charming members of the weasel family find refuge in Alaskan coastal waters – but their numbers have significantly declined since the 1980s.

Elderberries: In mid-July, when this small black fruit is in season, bears will leave behind streams well-stocked with salmon to look for elderberry trees. A “superfood” for bears, they contain much less protein than salmon and other berries, hitting a sweet spot for their digestive systems.
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Bald Eagles: Protected here since 1959, these magnificent birds of prey are found near water where they have access to fish – along Alaska’s coast, lakes and rivers. Alaska’s Chilkat Valley is a bald eagle preserve and home to between 200 and 400 eagles; the valley’s experienced rafting guides know where to look for them.

Bears: Alaska is home to all three species of North American bears: black, brown and polar. And while there are many bears in Alaska, it’s not always easy to see them. Sometimes they’re spotted by boat, sometimes by plane, but chances are highest in summer when they are searching for salmon. And while bears are often associated with danger to humans, experts say that conflicts can almost always be avoided. Under the rare circumstances that people find themselves close to a bear, they recommend making noise (bears don’t like surprises), talking (let them know you are human) and not taking chances with food (as bears are always looking to eat).

Stellar Sea Lions: Since the 1970s this endangered species has lost more than 80% of its Alaskan population due to the lacerations, strangling and drowning. How? Injuries are caused by marine debris, not only commercial fishing nets and hooks but plastic packing straps (the ones used to secure boxes for shipping). The Alaska Department of Fish & Game urges all of us to cut these plastic loops before tossing them!
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Denali Park Road: Accessible by park-operated buses, this 95-mile road offers a good chance to see Alaska’s “Big Five”: wolves, moose, grizzlies, Dall sheep and caribou. While sightings are not guaranteed, you may find a moose nibbling on leaves along the road, Dall sheep along a mountain pass – and sometimes, curious animals that come right up to the bus.

Moose: These massive, moody creatures make their way across many parts of Alaska in search of greens to eat. You might find them crossing a highway, near a marsh or wooded area, or even wandering through a city neighborhood. Experts warn that males can be aggressive in early fall (mating season) and females in late summer (when protecting their young). They advise, “Never get between a cow and her calf!”

Dall Sheep: Staying high up on steep slopes and mountain ridges to elude natural predators, and known for their rounded horns, Dall sheep sometimes appear like small white dots on the mountains above. In addition to the Denali Park Road, they also like to hang out on the cliffs of Alaska’s Turnagain Arm and Seward Highway.
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Wood Bison: Differing from the Plains bison that once roamed the “lower 48,” this once-native Alaskan disappeared from the state by the turn of the 19th century due to hunting and habitat change. After a decade-long effort, the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center proudly reintroduced 100 of these largest land animals in the Western Hemisphere to western Alaska.

Whales: At the top of the food chain, these immense creatures impress with their graceful breaches above the water’s edge. The males not only “sing” underwater, but listen to one another – developing intricate and eerie calls that evolve over time. Scientists say that females seem to be attracted to males with more innovative calls!

Alaskan wildlife tracking: Experts have adapted to changing conditions. Moose were once counted by flying overhead, when they were easy to spot against fields of white snow. But as snowfall decreased in parts of Alaska, they became much harder to spot. So scientists learned to identify signs of moose in thickets and forests and now extrapolate the data to estimate actual numbers. Salmon are now counted using solar-powered, time-lapse photography; cameras placed above streams are set to take a burst of photos at the top of every hour. Counting is still required, but is less labor-intensive and costly. Bears, fitted with GPS collars, are monitored in summer with the aid of time-lapse photography along open stretches of streams.
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Alaska may be our last traditional frontier, a place where the riches of nature – above all its wildlife, are thankfully being monitored and protected by a mindful state.

Tauck guests explore Alaska’s wilds and wildlife by land, boat, train and private charter plane, with a choice of three programs: Wild Alaska, Grand Alaska and our Tauck Bridges great family holiday, Alaska: Call of the Wild.
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