Environment

One giant paw-print stirs an age-old debate: how big can a wolf be?

A man in the Northwest Territories spotted giant wolf tracks, 7½ inches long. Anything longer than 5½ inches is Amarok territory—the legendary lupine of Inuit folklore.

Years ago, on a dark December morning, Ron Doctor was driving alone through the snowy hinterlands of the Northwest Territories when he spotted something odd in the thick, fresh snow. He couldn’t get a good look, so he drove home and returned to the scene during his precious four-hour window of subarctic daylight. The second visit confirmed his suspicions: these were giant wolf tracks, 7½ inches long.

“Holy smoke,” the veteran wildlife officer thought to himself. “This is unreal.” He’d never seen a wolf track that big.

Doctor gauged the distance between each print—six or seven feet. Head to tail, the beast itself could be as long as eight. He laid his left hand next to the feral vestige and snapped a photo, impressing friends and family, and eventually—out of the blue in January—getting posted to CBC North’s website and going semi-viral on Twitter. “We know there’s wolves around,” he says. “But that size—nobody’s ever seen a track that size.”

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Doctor lives in Tulita, a remote hamlet of 477 people nestled at the junction of the Great Bear and Mackenzie rivers. The legendary Mackenzie is the longest waterway in Canada, whose basin is home to the Mackenzie Valley wolves, among the largest gray wolves in North America. Females can reach 100 lb., but males routinely top 120. Their prints extend 5½ inches. Anything longer is sasquatch territory.

Or, more accurately, Amarok territory. That’s the legendary lupine of Inuit folklore—a godlike creature who kills lone hunters at night. Most wolves are not Amarok. Sources are foggy on the biggest wolf ever caught, but an Alaskan hunter once bagged a 175-lb. one. That was in 1939, and a few 140-pounders have been caught since. But unlike the mythical Inuit wolf lord, none of them stalked human prey. “It’s amazing to me that wolves don’t attack people more often,” says Dean Cluff, a regional biologist for the North Slave Region of the Northwest Territories. “Because they certainly could. If they knew how weak we were, they would.”

Instead, wolves prefer to compete with their Inuit neighbours for moose and caribou. The latter presents a problem, because Canadian caribou are heading toward extinction. In the spring of 2020, the government of the Northwest Territories spent more than $320,000 to snipe wolves from a helicopter to protect the Bathurst and Bluenose-East caribou herds. (This is not unique; during the winter of 2019-2020, British Columbia spent almost $2 million to cull 463 wolves from caribou regions.) In 2015, the territory began awarding $200 for each wolf carcass delivered to its Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

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Many of those dead wolves wind up at Cluff’s office in Yellowknife. Equipped with a master’s degree in zoology and decades of experience studying wolves, Cluff has amassed a collection of hundreds of wolf carcasses—scientific samples from which he should, theoretically, be able to determine a wolf’s size without seeing the animal in person. But hunters don’t treat them with consistency. Some carcasses are skinned, some not; others are missing tails or paws. What’s more, wolves can pack away 20 lb. of food in their stomachs, making weight comparisons hard (was the animal full when it was shot?). In the winter, when prey is easier to catch, they grow fatter. There are simply too many variables.

So Cluff is chiselling away at his own solution. “I have a whole bunch of femurs from all these carcasses that I’m going to weigh,” he explains. Cluff has asked around, but he’s never found a formula for determining wolf weights based on bones, the way paleontologists extrapolate dinosaur data from fossils. If such a formula does exist for wolves, “it’s certainly not widespread,” he says. “There’s not much of a need for this, I suppose. But I want to be able to do that, so I think I can make that contribution. It’s just taking time.”

Cluff has seen Doctor’s photo, but a print alone is even less useful than a femur. So this literal bigfoot wolf is free to run wild in our imaginations, ballooning to monstrous sizes; humans may fear its murderous capacity, marvel at its strength or scapegoat it for the extinction of a whole other species, downplaying the roles of climate change and mining development and shrinking habitat. In Farley Mowat’s 1963 book Never Cry Wolf, in which he describes the lives of wolves in northern Canada, he blamed shrinking caribou numbers not on stigmatized wolves, but on stubborn humans: “We have doomed the wolf not for what it is, but for what we deliberately and mistakenly perceive it to be—the mythologized epitome of a savage ruthless killer—which is, in reality, no more than a reflected image of ourself.”

Meanwhile, a modern-day Amarok, impossibly large yet invisible to humans, may roam Canada’s tundra in search of prey. Cluff, for one, isn’t afraid. To him, they mark a thriving ecosystem. Wolves signify life. “If you’ve got wolves,” he says, “you’ve got real wilderness.”


This article appears in print in the March 2021 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “My, what big paws you have.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.