S36 Ep7

Arctic Wolf Pack

Premiere: 1/17/2018 | 00:00:30 |

Discover the white wolf, one of the most hardened predators on the planet, in Ellesmere Island's unforgiving ice and snow. In a fight for survival, these roaming hunters must travel far from the den to feed their cubs, putting them at risk.

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About the Episode

Airs Wednesday, February 26, 2020, at 8 p.m. on PBS (check local listings)

At the very northern edge of North America is Ellesmere Island, where the unforgiving Arctic winds tear through the tundra, dipping temperatures to 40 below zero. Running through this shifting sea of snow and ice is one of the most hardened predators on the planet, the White Wolf. But as the spring melt approaches, these roaming hunters must adapt to being tethered parents as new additions to the pack have just been born. With their herds of prey continuing to move, we witness a desperate race to keep up and bring back a kill to the hungry mothers and cubs. Traveling farther and farther away from their den each day puts these hunters and their children at risk in this fight for survival.


♪♪ NARRATOR: The Arctic is no place to be a lone wolf.

Prey is scarce... and it's fierce and well-armed.

Where food sometimes is plentiful, it's fast.

There's often not enough to go around.

Up here, what a wolf needs most... is family.

A family grows up to be a pack, and a pack can hold a territory.

Now they have a real chance -- to hunt... to raise pups... to prosper in this seemingly impossible place.

And it's for a family that a wolf can rise from determined killer... to a tender and devoted member of the pack... [ Howling ] ...whose loyalty lasts to the very end.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ NARRATOR: The wolves of the high Arctic live much of their lives in darkness.

[ Howling ] [ Howling continues ] Here on Canada's Ellesmere Island, their dramatic story unfolds far from human eyes... a mere 500 miles from the North Pole.

♪♪ Wolves here have little choice but to brave the brutal winter cold that lasts for 8 months of the year.

♪♪ To survive, they must face formidable prey... five times their size and armed with lethal horns.

♪♪ But a wolf on its own can't do much against such intimidating beasts.

♪♪ The strength of muskox in a herd tells the wolf that without a pack alongside him, he should just move on.

♪♪ It's late March, and the Eureka pack is finishing up what's left of a bull muskox they killed two weeks ago.

The pack has been fortunate this year.

The winter snow was unusually deep, which left many muskox weak and vulnerable.

The Eureka wolves are thriving, thanks to the care and guidance of Snow White and Alpha, the breeding pair who now return to their family.

For wolves, family means everything.

It's the single most important thing in their lives.

[ Wolves shrieking ] The bonds of love and loyalty run deep, even if they do sometimes squabble over leftovers.

[ Snarling ] ♪♪ ♪♪ To live in this icy realm, so far north, animals need to be special.

Ellesmere Island is a polar desert that receives little more than 3 inches of rain a year.

Food here is almost always frozen and buried.

Adapted to life in a freezer, muskox and Arctic hares are masters at conserving energy.

It's the only way they can survive on the sparse twigs and dry grasses here.

But times are changing.

Warmer winters bring deeper snow and freezing rain, locking what little vegetation there is under an icy crust.

♪♪ ♪♪ Changes such as these also threaten the wolves, by disturbing the delicate balance of life in the north.

When the Eureka pack makes a kill, they waste nothing.

At minus 40, frozen bones can shatter teeth, but the fatty marrow inside is too precious to waste.

A lone female from outside the pack approaches the carcass.

Snow White and Alpha are nearby, so she's taking a risk.

♪♪ ♪♪ Hunger makes her desperate.

But Snow White and Alpha do not approve.

♪♪ ♪♪ Membership in the pack is exclusive, and the breeding pair alone decides who may stay and who must go.

♪♪ These last scraps are not for her.

There's not much left... and not long before they'll have to kill again.

♪♪ Forced to leave, this female will have to strike out on her own.

In this frozen land, life is harsh for outcasts... without a family like the Eureka pack to shelter and protect them.

♪♪ It's not that wolves are cruel or kind.

It's the Arctic itself that is so unforgiving.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ Yet, as the weeks go by, winter slowly retreats.

The snow cover begins to melt away.

For all animals, it's a sprint to make the most of a short Arctic summer.

The race starts now.

[ Scratching ] ♪♪ An Arctic fox.

♪♪ This nimble hunter stays light on his feet, so as not to betray his presence to what lays hidden below.

♪♪ A lemming.

Lemmings don't hibernate, a crucially important fact for the Arctic fox.

He's almost completely reliant on these small creatures, who ride out the worst of the winter weather in their labyrinth of tunnels under the snow.

♪♪ The lone female is out on the tundra.

♪♪ She has wandered the ridges and valleys for the last several weeks, searching for a very special place... ...a place that she can call home... for herself... and her new pups.

♪♪ Tucked down in a small river valley, her den is perfect for keeping her pups warm, dry, and out of sight.

She has started a family of her own, the foundations of a new pack.

♪♪ The transition into spring is swift.

The sun now circles 24 hours a day.

[ Wolf howling ] ♪♪ But just because the snow is melting doesn't mean life is any easier.

[ Howling continues ] [ Wolves howling in distance ] [ Wolf howls ] Her mate's been gone for several days.

Hungry, she calls for his return.

But howling announces her presence, which is a mistake.

♪♪ Strange wolves are approaching.

♪♪ ♪♪ Alone, without the protection of a pack, she and her pups are in grave danger.

♪♪ It's another breeding pair, with their adult offspring, out on patrol.

This is their territory, their land.

♪♪ ♪♪ Had she stayed silent, they might not have found her.

♪♪ ♪♪ The hair is raised on the back of their necks.

They smell...something.

♪♪ She needs to act quickly and draw them away.

♪♪ ♪♪ She must not fail.

♪♪ ♪♪ She's just as fast as the Raiders.

But has she succeeded in leading them away?

♪♪ The Raiders have given up the chase...for now.

Perhaps the pups are safe.

The Raiders turn and head back the way they came.

But something catches their attention.

♪♪ ♪♪ They've picked up her scent again and this time head straight for the den.

♪♪ [ Wolf howls ] [ Pups yelping ] The breeding female enters first.

The pups don't stand a chance.

♪♪ Raids like these between rival packs are not uncommon.

But this is the first time one has been filmed.

[ Wolf howls ] There's nothing their mother can do to stop the Raiders.

She can't go closer, or they will kill her, too.

♪♪ ♪♪ Though it may seem cruel, the Raiders have no choice but to push back against those who threaten their territory.

They have their own pups to care for and protect, and this is the only way to ensure their survival.

When rival packs clash, the largest family almost always wins, even if there's a difference of only one.

The lone female had five pups in her den.

A year is all it would have taken for the balance of power to shift.

Then would have come for At least the pups did not suffer, and their bodies will not go to waste.

♪♪ ♪♪ The deed is done.

The Raiders begin the trek back to their den, 20 miles west.

Though the tundra may seem vast and empty, less than a day's walk is all that separates rival packs.

No wolf is completely safe up here.

♪♪ Hours later, the female returns.

♪♪ She only dares approach when the Raiders have gone.

♪♪ ♪♪ She can smell the Raiders' presence all around the den.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ Her den is empty.

She can't stay here alone in her rivals' territory.

But where will she go?

And will she find her mate again?

For now, it's best for her to move on.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ It's early June, and the snow continues to melt.

Snow White and Alpha are staying close to their den, and for good reason.

Snow White has given birth to three healthy pups.

The newest members of the Eureka pack don't even have their eyes open yet.

It's unusual to see pups so young out of the den.

Alpha is a proud father, and the entire family is excited.

♪♪ But raising pups here is no easy task.

When food is scarce, less than half of all Arctic wolf pups will survive the summer.

Snow White and Alpha will need everyone's help if they are to succeed.

This includes last year's pups, who must graduate into full-fledged providers.

But there's another wolf who's come to help.

A few days ago, a lone female wandered in from the distant ridges to join the pack.

She has a distinctive black spot at the base of her tail.

Who she is is unclear.

But the pack not only accepts her, she's the only other wolf allowed down in the den with the pups.

Perhaps she's Snow White's sister or a daughter from years past.

With the birth of the pups, the need to find food takes on a new urgency.

As the matriarch, Snow White is usually first to be fed.

But this is a big pack of 14 wolves, and their appetites are insatiable.

Any wolf returning home gets mobbed from all sides, and the begging doesn't stop until they bring up some meat.

The challenge for the pack is that not everyone can go out on a hunt.

There always need to be a few, like Blackspot, who stay behind and help protect the den.

They need to be fed, as well.

♪♪ ♪♪ And at last, Blackspot gets a morsel.

It's only a small bite, but it will have to last her for the next couple of days.

Most of the year, the wolves roam their territory like nomads.

But during the denning season, they're forced to always return to this spot.

They can travel 25 miles a day in search of food and be gone for over a week, constantly crisscrossing their barren territory in an endless game of seek and find.

♪♪ Sometimes, though, food finds Arctic hares have wandered close to the den.

A young female tries her luck.

♪♪ ♪♪ Sprinting at 40 miles an hour, hares and wolves are an even match.

Whoever stumbles first, loses.

♪♪ Panicked and confused, the hare runs right up onto the den.

A fatal mistake.

[ Snarling ] Others aren't having as much luck.

For Snow White, a single hare is only small meal.

The burden of producing milk puts huge demands on her body.

She needs 2 or 3 times as much food as the others.

Blackspot, despite spending almost all her time with the pups, gets nothing but fur.

If only the pack realized just how special she is, she might get more food.

In the spring sunshine, the pups make another appearance.

♪♪ Less than two weeks old, and with their eyes barely open, the pups are a reminder of how fragile new life is.

♪♪ ♪♪ With more than one burrow at the den, Snow White seems unsure of where to put them.

Is she sensing something?

Most of the pack is away with Alpha on a hunt, so those remaining must be on constant alert.

Then something strange appears -- a bedraggled intruder heading straight for them.

[ Snarling ] ♪♪ Snow White mounts a defense.

Outnumbered and surrounded, the stranger's assault is pure madness.

Who is she?

♪♪ ♪♪ The attacker turns and makes a dash for the den.

Diving in front, Blackspot gets there first.

She blocks the entrance with her body.

♪♪ The attacker tries to squeeze past Blackspot.

They must pull her out, or she will kill the pups.

♪♪ Maybe they know her, or else they would have killed her by now.

Remarkably, Snow White and Blackspot let her go.

The pups are safe...this time.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ It's late June, and the pups are growing bigger and stronger.

They're starting to spend more and more of their day outside.

Blackspot barely leaves and remains faithfully by their side.

♪♪ And she's even nursing the pups.

♪♪ She could only do this if she'd had pups of her own... somewhere out on the tundra... before she joined the pack.

But where are her pups now?

And where is her mate?

It's clear that a deep and meaningful bond runs between Snow White and Blackspot.

Why else would they share life's special gift?

♪♪ Whatever is in their past, something powerful compels Blackspot to care for Snow White's pups and treat them as her own.

Having two females nurse the same litter is exceedingly rare.

It's a behavior that's never been filmed before.

It's no wonder the pups are thriving.

♪♪ But this happy arrangement of the pups having two mothers will prove to be even more significant as the Arctic summer wears on.

♪♪ [ Birds calling ] The wolves aren't the only ones tending to their young.

The Arctic foxes have a full house of their own, with plenty of kits to keep them busy.

♪♪ Everyone is trying to make the most of the short arctic summer.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ With so many young, there's no time for a break.

♪♪ [ Jaeger squawking ] The life of the male fox is hard enough without being dive-bombed by jaegers.

The food hand-off to his mate is quick, and there's no time for him to rest.

He needs to catch 30 more lemmings today.

As the kits get older and start eating more solid food, the pair will have to supply upwards of 100 lemmings a day to feed so many hungry mouths.

For now, the kits are more interested in play.

♪♪ But if they won't eat their dinner, someone else will.

[ Jaeger squawking ] Summer has not been kind to the Eureka pack.

They haven't made a muskox kill in over a month.

The pack has scattered.

All the wolves are out on their own, looking for food.

Snow White has caught a few smaller prey.

But Blackspot never leaves the den and has only old bones to gnaw on.

♪♪ It's not enough.

She goes hungry. Again.

♪♪ [ Jaeger squawking ] The jaegers have had more luck finding food than the wolves.

Their chick needs to grow quickly if it's to fledge by the beginning of August.

Insects and lemmings are all on the menu.

[ Chick chirping ] The Arctic hares have also had their young.

Unlike their parents, the leverets are well-camouflaged.

And by staying perfectly still, they might not be spotted.

[ Jaeger squawking ] The jaegers, however, have a different strategy for dealing with predators.

Jaegers spend most of the year out at sea far from land.

Their wings are made for riding over the waves on the open ocean.

♪♪ ♪♪ Dive-bombing a wolf is barely a challenge.

And while the birds run interference, the leveret escapes.

It's mealtime again at the fox den.

[ Chittering ] The pair has eleven kits.

With so many mouths to feed, dinner is first come, first served.

[ Wolf howls in distance ] ♪♪ [ Wolf howls in distance ] ♪♪ ♪♪ At the Eurekas' den, something is wrong.

♪♪ Blackspot is so weak, she's barely able to walk.

♪♪ She's fallen gravely ill.

♪♪ After spending all day, every day, with the pups, she simply hasn't been eating.

♪♪ ♪♪ Snow White hasn't been getting enough food, either.

But Blackspot's pushed herself too far.

♪♪ [ Howls ] Alpha senses something's wrong.

[ Howling ] Even though she can barely stand, Blackspot lets the pups nurse.

Her instinct to care for them has overridden her own needs.

The rest of the pack doesn't seem to realize the gravity of the situation.

♪♪ They're all hungry, but Blackspot is starving.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ The next day, Blackspot is dead.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ Her death is a reminder that in the Arctic there are no easy seasons.

Even in summer, the line between success and failure is a narrow one.

♪♪ [ Wolf howling ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Wolf howling ] ♪♪ Snow White faces a dire situation.

Blackspot's body is blocking the den entrance, and the pups won't leave her side.

♪♪ [ Pups yelping ] There's no food, and Snow White is all on her own.

The others are gone and won't be back for days.

What should she do?

♪♪ Snow White chooses to take her pups and abandon the den.

♪♪ It's a dangerous decision.

Her pups are still so vulnerable.

They're only 4 weeks old.

Their legs are too short to go very far.

Normally, Snow White wouldn't move them for another month.

But staying here alone is also risky.

♪♪ ♪♪ In the high Arctic, the threat of a mid-July storm is never far away.

Snow White and the pups will need to be careful.

The Raiders patrol their border a few miles away.

♪♪ ♪♪ As quickly as it comes, the snow disappears.

♪♪ ♪♪ Guided by experience, Snow White knows that 20 miles to the west, there's food.

Lots of it.

On Ellesmere Island, Arctic hares run in herds.

♪♪ ♪♪ If only she can bring her pups here safely.

♪♪ But her rivals' territory is not far away.

[ Muskox grunts ] ♪♪ The Raiders take no interest in the muskox... because they've spotted something else.

One of the Eureka pack.

♪♪ He needs to run while he still can.

♪♪ Alone and out in the open, he's in trouble.

[ Snarling, yelping ] ♪♪ The most dangerous thing to wolves here... is other wolves, and conflicts between packs are the greatest cause of wolf deaths.

[ Yelping ] Between rival packs, territorial boundaries overlap and constantly shift without warning.

For wolves, limiting competition for food and space is sometimes just as important as finding prey.

♪♪ The Eurekas, the Raiders, and every other pack here on Ellesmere are all driven by the same basic and fundamental desire -- to find food and territory and defend it with their lives.

♪♪ ♪♪ The Eureka pack is one wolf down.

It's a terrible loss.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ It's been two long weeks since Snow White was forced to leave the den, and though she's on her own, remarkably, she has managed to keep her pups safe.

♪♪ ♪♪ At last, some of her family finds her.

They've followed her trail, and now she'll have the help that she desperately needs.

The pups can only travel 2 or 3 miles before they need a few days to rest.

But with babysitters now on hand, Snow White is free to go hunting in the distant hills, where leverets are plentiful.

But for every hare that she catches, Snow White has to make a round trip of up to 15 miles.

Now that the pups are eating solid food, they can gain half a pound in a day.

It's taking all her time and effort just to keep up with the demand.

[ Pups yipping ] This new abundance comes as a relief, but its timing is bittersweet.

A week or two earlier could have made all the difference to Blackspot... and might have seen her through the lean times.

At least everyone in the pack will be well-fed for the first time this summer.

[ Pups growling ] Of course, last year's pup still wants a handout, but he's old enough now to hunt for himself.

A sense of urgency still drives Snow White westward, to where vast fields of cotton grass mean the grazing is good for both hares... and muskox.

♪♪ This is a good time of year for everyone.

A time to build up reserves before winter... and kick back in the summer sun.

But these easy times are fleeting.

It's the end of July, and by early September, temperatures will drift back far below freezing.

Soon, the dust of summer will once again be locked in snow and ice... for another 8 long months.

♪♪ After an arduous journey, Snow White and the pups have finally reached their destination.

Nestled below the western hills, there will be enough food for them here into the autumn.

At last, Alpha joins her again.

The rest of the Eurekas finally arrive, and the whole family is reunited.

The pack can relax and enjoy what remains of the summer warmth together.

♪♪ Then...something startles them.

♪♪ A large bull muskox... wandering right into the middle of their resting site.

Weighing over 700 pounds, a bull in his prime is a force to be reckoned with.

Male muskox are renowned for being ill-tempered.

[ Muskox grunts ] But in early August, the start of the rutting season, their aggression begins to peak.

During the rut, as they vie for supremacy and breeding rights, bulls are often in a violent mood.

♪♪ And because he weighs over 5 times as much as a wolf, this bull could easily trample the pups or collapse the tunnels where they're hiding.

♪♪ It's almost as if he's spoiling for a fight.

♪♪ ♪♪ The wolves need to be cautious.

One false move, and the bull could gore them with his horns.

♪♪ ♪♪ But Snow White remains calm.

This isn't the first time she's encountered a charged-up bull.

♪♪ Tangling with him isn't worth the risk, not when there's lots of other food around.

They might meet again later, in winter, once the bitter cold leaves him in a weakened state.

♪♪ For now, Snow White returns to more pressing needs.

Her single most important mission is to ensure that all her pups survive and thrive... ...including this little one, with a small black spot at the base of her tail.

♪♪ These pups are the lifeblood of the pack, the ones who will ensure their continued survival.

Each one is so very precious.

[ Wolf howling ] [ Wolves howling ] [ Howling continues ] Until they become the Eureka's protectors and providers, the pups can rely on the support of their extended family.

Frigid temperatures and months of total darkness lie ahead.

[ Howling continues ] But the Eurekas are Arctic wolves.

And their fortunes will follow the strength of the pack.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪