Until recently, scientists didn’t know much about the genetically distinct coastal wolves and their marine prey.

Wolves are probably one of the most widely studied species on the planet. What’s fascinating, though, is that just when we think we know almost everything there is to know about them, they find a way to surprise us.

It’s estimated that 2 million wolves once roamed freely throughout North America. But for the past 10,000 years, we humans have been hunting them, largely because we believed that the threat they posed to livestock superseded any value they could have for us. By the 1960s, gray wolves had been exterminated from all of the contiguous United States except Michigan’s Isle Royale National Park and part of Minnesota. Then, in 1990, came their reintroduction to Yellowstone National Park, and we learned how important wolves are to the ecosystems in which they naturally live.

In the mid-1990s, there was another startling “discovery”: the genetically distinct coastal wolves that are endemic to the Pacific Northwest (the U.S. states of Alaska, Oregon and Washington, and the Canadian province of British Columbia). Although the first inkling that these clam-and-salmon-eating wolves were unique was theorized by a zoologist named Ian McTaggart-Cowan in the 1930s, it wasn’t until 1995 that research on coastal wolves began in earnest.


Unlike their interior cousins, coastal wolves live with two paws in the ocean and two paws on land. They move like ghosts along shorelines in the Pacific Northwest, so elusive that people rarely see them lurking in the mossy forests.

However, the existence of coastal wolves was certainly not news to the coastal First Nations peoples, whose knowledge of the wolves dates back to their earliest origin stories.

Now, however, scientists from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the National Park Service and Oregon State University—in conjunction with First Nations tribes— are uncovering even more about these waterside dwellers: it appears they also prey on otters and seals.

The makings of marine wolves

Coastal wolves—or marine wolves or sea wolves, as they’re also known—are fast, powerful swimmers. They move stealthily in the water, with their backs and bodies submerged. Only their ears, eyes and snouts break through to the surface.


Coastal wolves are endemic to the Pacific Northwest. Many live in the Canadian province of British Columbia, which holds the Great Bear Rain Forest and its famous spirit bears.

Coastal wolves don’t just dog-paddle; they’re distance swimmers. There is at least one pack on Goose Island off the British Columbia coast, about eight miles from Bella Bella; and there is no other way to get there except to swim. Many of these wolves migrate through the archipelago, swimming from island to island throughout the year. At times, they’re tracking the salmon; but they sometimes show up even when there’s no salmon around. Surprisingly, these carnivores also eat shellfish. Using their paws, they dig in the sand for clams and use their powerful jaws to crack open the shells of mussels. As for their remaining terrestrial diets, like their larger, mainland, timber-wolf counterparts, coastal wolves also hunt black-tailed deer and moose.

Today, we know that coastal wolves have an extensive range, from southern Alaska all the way south to Vancouver Island. And while a typical pack size is five or six individuals, no one knows a precise population number. Part of the reason is because when working with Indigenous knowledge-keepers, all scientists must respect the animals. The wolves are family to most native peoples, and capturing and tagging family is not allowed.

So, to gather more data, scientists have had to employ noninvasive techniques. Luckily, wolves conveniently leave behind a rich source of information every day: feces. Today, 7,000 scat samples later, researchers have a much clearer picture of coastal wolves’ ecology, genetics, hormone levels, physiology and the types of bacteria and parasites they harbor. Hair and bone fragments found in their droppings also offer details on their prey. And while we may not have the help of GPS collars, the scat samples do offer a different form of location-mapping, offering data on the animals’ habitats and ranges. Critically, information gleaned through an analysis of the DNA obtained from the feces aligns with First Nations’ knowledge that coastal wolves are genetically distinct from mainland wolves, even though geographically the two are close neighbors.


It was Chester “Lone Wolf” Starr, a Heiltsuk Elder and mentor to many Raincoast Conservation Foundation scientists, who pointed out some key differences between mainland and marine wolves—inspiring the hypothesis that the latter may be genetically distinct.

The supper of sea otter

One day in 2016, Kelsey Griffin, a National Park Service biologist, and some of her colleagues stopped for lunch on the beach during a day of conducting bird mortality and marine debris surveys at Katmai National Park. Suddenly, a white wolf trotted by, carrying an otter. Neither she nor any of her fellow scientists had ever seen anything like that before.

Realizing that there was a lot yet to learn about wolves on the Katmai Coast and wondering if they often did eat sea otters, Griffin connected with Gretchen Roffler, a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, who introduced her to Taal Levi, a professor at Oregon State University. Levi and others had done some work on wolves and sea otters on Pleasant Island, which is located adjacent to Glacier Bay, about 40 miles west of Juneau and hundreds of miles east of Katmai across the Gulf of Alaska. They had found that wolves on Pleasant Island caused a deer population to plummet and so had switched to primarily eating sea otters in just a few years.

The Oregon State University team believes that this is the first case of sea otters becoming the primary food source for a land-based predator.

Candice Gaukel Andrews has written permission from Kelsey Griffin to use this photo

One day in 2016 in Katmai National Park, a biologist and some of her colleagues stopped for lunch on the beach during a day of conducting surveys. A white wolf carrying an otter walked by—and that started a research study that had surprising results. ©Kelsey Griffin/National Park Service

The confounding catches of Katmai

In a new paper published in the science journal Ecology in October 2023, Kelsey Griffin and her colleagues at the National Park Service, scientists from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, members of First Nations tribes and Oregon State University researchers describe several incidents that they observed involving wolves and marine mammals in Katmai National Park that they believe have never been previously documented:

• In 2016, the researchers witnessed a male wolf hunt and kill a harbor seal. The wolf was positioned near the mouth of a creek when it charged into the water, grabbing the tail of the seal. After an approximate 30-minute struggle, the seal appeared to tire, straining to lift its head above the water. The wolf dragged the seal onto the exposed sandbar and began to tear into the existing wound and consume the tail.

• On three separate days in 2016, 2018 and 2019, the scientists and others observed wolves carrying sea otter carcasses.


Adult sea otters, the prey of coastal wolves, can grow up to five feet in length and weigh between 50 and 100 pounds.

• In 2021, the researchers watched three wolves hunt and eat an adult sea otter on an island during a low tide. They watched the wolves travel to the island, then lost sight of them for about one minute. When the wolves reappeared, they were carrying a limp sea otter. They fed on the carcass for approximately an hour. Once the wolves left, the researchers examined the site and found an area of concentrated blood where the sea otter was likely killed. The presence of blood indicates that the sea otter had been alive when ambushed by the wolves, as opposed to being scavenged.

Future research, say the scientists, will include analysis of wolves and sea otters from Glacier Bay National Park, Kenai Fjords National Park and Lake Clark National Park. There are also plans to look at how sea otter density impacts the diets of wolves on a pack level versus on an individual level.

The coastal wolves of clear-cuts and powerful conservation

Once upon a time, wolves—next to humans—were the most widely distributed terrestrial animals on Earth. The wolf is a keystone species in First Nations’ stories and remains one in their cultures today. In settler societies and tales, however, the “big, bad wolf” plays the role of the villain. We have banished and demonized wolves; and, in many places, hunted and culled them to near extinction.


The Raincoast Conservation Foundation bought out all the remaining commercial hunting licenses in the Great Bear Rain Forest, bringing a permanent end to the commercial guiding of trophy hunting in almost 15,000 square miles of the forest.

Today, threats to coastal wolves include climate change, industrial logging and trophy hunting. Climate change is causing prey animals to now come into territories at different times and in different numbers. With heat changing the onset of the seasons, their timing is off; and this causes ripples throughout the food chain. Logging is detrimental for the obvious reason that it destroys the rain forest habitat of both the wolves and their prey. Clear-cuts disturb the soil and increase runoff, which in turn affects marine species, such as salmon.

But there is also some very good news, and it demonstrates the power of conservation under Indigenous land management. Today, wolves are largely safe from the threats of hunting and logging in First Nations Heiltsuk territory. That’s because 55% of this land is protected, and the rest is under ecosystem management. Only 11% is open to industry. And the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, working with the coastal First Nations, has developed an effective campaign to stop hunting. Using funds it started raising in 2005, the foundation has bought out all the remaining commercial hunting licenses in the Great Bear Rain Forest and the Huchsduwachsdu Nuyem Jees/Kitlope Heritage Conservancy, bringing a permanent end to the commercial guiding of trophy hunting in 14,980 square miles of B.C.’s Great Bear Rain Forest.

The snouts of senescent wolves

This new research from the Pacific Northwest forces us to reconsider the assumptions that underlie a lot of our management decisions regarding wolf populations and populations of their prey, where we presume that wolves depend on ungulates, such as elk and moose. In fact, one study found that coastal wolves’ diets can be up to 85% marine-based: lone wolves take down otters and seals, while packs have been spotted feasting on the occasional whale carcass.

First Nations peoples of the Pacific Northwest have long offered the wolf a place of respect and admiration within their cultures. ©Julia Wells/

It’s estimated that this year, in First Nations Heiltsuk lands, wolf numbers are up. But that’s a scientific assessment. Where the protection of this ecosystem and its residents is more appropriately measured is in the faces of the wolves. On a wolf, a white muzzle is a sign of a long life.

And it’s said that today in Heiltsuk territory, there are plenty of coastal wolves with snowy snouts.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,