Wolf Behavior: Facts & Myths

How do scientific facts about wolf behavior compare to people's common misperceptions or myths?

Consider your past and/or current beliefs about wolves as you read the scientific facts related to each behavior. Respond to the Points to Ponder within each misperception, and continue to use Parsing Perceptions to compare each statement with the relevant scientific facts.

Points to Ponder
  1. Why is this misperception of wolves attacking people still believed by so many people? What stories and instances in pop culture help feed this myth? 
  2. Our pet dogs are domesticated canines and related to wolves. How does a dog tell you that it wants to be given space and left alone? How does it tell you it is getting agitated? Think of their body position, ears, mouth, tail, and vocalization. Wolves use these same behaviors to communicate their feelings and intentions. If humans ignore these signals, there is potential for both dogs and humans to get hurt. 
  3. Watch this video that describes an encounter with a wolf. 
    • Describe the wolf’s natural behavior.   
    • What should you do if you encounter a wolf? 
    • What are several responses the wolf might have? 
Video: What should you do if you encounter a wolf? From Kids4Wolves
  1. The fear of wolves: a review of wolf attacks on humans from the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research (2002, page 42). 
  2. This is the Number of People Killed by “Fearsome Wolves” from The Dodo (2015). 
  3. Findings Related to the March 2010 Fatal Wolf Attack Near Chignik Lake, Alaska from Alaska Department of Fish and Game (2011). 
  4. Fears as Predator Returns to Europe from Spiegel Online (2015).
  5. Understanding wolf behavior- for your safety and theirs from Conservation Northwest (2018).
  6. Sharing the Land with Wolves from Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (2015).
  7. Living With Wolves from Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
  8. Living with Wolves: Tips for Avoiding Conflicts from The International Wolf Center.

Fact: Any predator can be dangerous to people, but wolf attacks are rare.

Myth: "Wolves attack people."

Many people think wolf attacks are common, but it is more likely that you will be attacked by a bear or mountain lion¹.  There have only been two documented cases in the last century where wild, unprovoked and healthy (non-rabid) wolves killed humans in North America². In both cases, the people were alone in areas where wolves were habituated to humans³. Wolf attacks on humans usually occur because the wolf in question is provoked, surprised, or rabid, or because it detects a prey flight response from the person. The vast majority of these attacks are not fatal. 

In general, wolves are shy animals and fear humans enough to avoid them⁴ ⁵. If a person does encounter a wolf, the animal’s behavior would let the person know if it was feeling threatened or aggressive. Wolves display particular vocalizations and body language when they are preparing to attack potential prey. As long as people are aware of these behaviors and the appropriate response to them, they can avoid putting themselves in a dangerous situation where an attack could occur⁶ ⁷ ⁸.


Fact: Wolves are opportunists, choosing to hunt prey that are easiest to catch and kill using the least amount of energy.

Myth: "Wolves kill animals for sport as well as for food."

A commonly held perception is that wolves will kill animals for sport as well as for food. The success rate for wolf chases that result in kills is only 14%, with 86% of the chases ending with no food¹! These predators can’t afford to waste energy chasing and killing for reasons other than getting food. Hunting is also dangerous for wolves because they are trying to take down prey much larger than they are. Working together as a pack may reduce the risks, but a swift kick from an elk or bison can cause injury and death to an individual. Packs will strategically target the young, old, or sick individuals to reduce their chances of injury or even death. As a bonus, eliminating these weaker individuals from the herd also helps to keep prey populations healthy.

The perception that wolves kill for sport may have come about due to the phrase “surplus kill,” which refers to instances when wolves kill more prey than they can eat in one sitting. Given the challenging nature of the hunt, surplus kills are not a sport but rather a smart move² ³. Scientists and wolf experts have learned that wolves never waste food. They will always return to the kill to finish eating if humans or scavenger animals haven’t gotten there first⁴. Why might wolves kill more than they can eat? Reasons include preparing for long, cold winters when food sources are rare⁵, and taking advantage of opportunities for an easy kill⁶.

Points to Ponder

  1. Watch the video to observe the actual way that wolves hunt. How does the video disprove this mis-perception?
  2. If you want to learn more about how wolves hunt, check out this website: Living with Wolves
  1. Hunting success rates: how predators compare from Discover Wildlife.
  2. Do Wolves Kill For Sport? from Slate (2009). 
  3. Wolves at Colorado’s door? from The Daily Sentinel (2018). 
  4. The Truth About Wolf Surplus Killing: Survival, Not Sport from Outside Online (2016). 
  5. Surplus killing by carnivores from Journal of Zoology (2009).
  6. Temporal Variation in Wolf Predation Dynamics in Yellowstone from National Park Service (2016).

Points to Ponder

Watch the video with hunter David Gann.  
  • What are the arguments given in this video for being able to have wolves and hunting in Colorado? 
  • List the scientific facts presented in this video.  
  • What concerns might this video not address?
  • What question(s) would you like answered about how elk hunting by people is impacted by wolves?
  1. Elk populations booming ahead of hunting season from WyoFile (2018).
  2. Northern Yellowstone elk herd at highest level in more than a decade from Bozeman Daily Chronicle (2018).
  3. 2019 statewide and regional deer, elk hunting outlook from Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
  4. The Challenge of Understanding Northern Yellowstone Elk Dynamics After Wolf Reintroduction from National Park Service (2016).
  5. Reflecting on 40 Years Since Wolves Were Reintroduced in Yellowstone from Coeur d’Alene/Post Falls Press (2018). 
  6. Famous Yellowstone elk herd rebounds two decades after wolf reintroduction from The Spokesman-Review (2018).
  7. Officials Fighting CWD Ponder a Natural Partner: Wolves from Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance.

Fact: If wolves are reintroduced, elk and deer populations will decrease, but the population decrease will not eliminate hunting opportunities.

Myth: "Wolves will decimate populations of elk and deer, and eliminate the hunting season."

A common perception is that if wolves are reintroduced, elk and deer populations will be decimated and very few hunting permits will be issued. It is true that prey populations will be affected, given the natural predator-prey relationship. However, these populations will not drop enough to eliminate the opportunity for people to hunt these animals altogether.

In states with large wolf populations (Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming), elk numbers are close to or above target levels set by state wildlife agencies¹ ² ³ . Research from Yellowstone provides data on elk populations before and after wolves were reintroduced. Before the 1995 reintroduction, elk numbers had already started decreasing.

When wolves were released, elk numbers dropped further, leading many people to believe wolves were the cause. However, other factors like summer precipitation, winter severity, and hunting by other predators were also affecting elk population size⁴. Despite the correlation of elk population decline and wolf reintroduction, it is unclear if the primary cause of Yellowstone’s declining elk populations was an increase in wolves.

To understand the effects of wolves on the hunting season, it is helpful to examine how hunting strategies of predators and humans differ. Wolves are opportunists, meaning they choose the easiest animals to hunt. To survive, wolves need to successfully kill prey by using the least amount of energy without getting hurt. They rarely attempt to kill a strong, healthy, and dangerous adult. Instead, they go after the herd’s young, old, and sick, the opposite of human hunters who prefer taking the healthiest individuals in the herd⁵. Most female elk hunted by people are within the reproductive ages of 2-8 years old, while 80% of the females killed by wolves from 1995-2011 in Yellowstone were more than 10 years old⁴. Research suggests that wolves preying on the sick can reduce brucellosis⁶ and possibly even chronic wasting disease⁷, which could improve the overall health of elk herds and have a positive impact on human hunting.


Fact: Wolves only prey on livestock when other prey is not available, or if the wolf in question is weak or old. 

Myth: "Wolves would decimate livestock herds and cause economic devastation to ranchers."

One of the most common misperceptions surrounding wolves is that they will decimate livestock herds and cause economic devastation for ranchers. However, experts have learned that wolves only turn to livestock as a food source if their other food sources are not available, or if the wolf in question is weak or old¹ ². In states where wolves are the most common (Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming), wolf attacks account for less than 1% of cattle deaths caused by predators³ ⁴ ⁵ ⁶. It is important to note that this statistic is looking at the total number of wolf attacks on livestock in the state, and does not distinguish between different impacts on large vs. small ranches. If a domestic animal is killed on a small ranch, the impact could be significantly higher than suggested by this statewide data. However, states with wolves have set up compensation programs to pay ranchers for their monetary loss caused by the depredation of one or more of their livestock⁷ ⁸. There are also several non-lethal strategies that ranchers can use to to avoid or deter wolf attacks on livestock⁹.

Points to Ponder

  1. Before watching these videos, write a list of words and phrases that describe your thoughts and knowledge about ranching and ranchers.
  2. Watch the video with rancher Kerri Brandt.
    • How were Kerri and her husband’s lives different before they married?  
    • How does Kerri describe the conflicting views between people on the front range or who are vegetarians (like she was) and ranchers? 
    • What does she see as a solution? 
    • What argument does Mike Phillips give the radio host?
  3. Rancher Duke Phillips
    • How does Duke Phillips describe the lives and priorities of ranchers? 
    • What are his thoughts about wolves and ranching? 
    • What argument does Mike Phillips give the radio host? 
  4. Revisit your list of phrases about ranchers and ranching. Sort your comments: Accurate, Inaccurate, Not sure, Ah-ha’s (new understandings)
  5. Reread the perception and description of the science about this perception. If you could talk with some ranchers, what questions would you ask about this way of life, about the concerns they might have if wolves were reintroduced, and about what they would like to see happen in relation to ranching if wolves were reintroduced?
Aspen-Mixed Conifer Forest and Woodland 2

Points to Ponder

  1. What does a wolf need in their habitat? What do decision-makers need to consider when choosing a reintroduction site? 
  2. What are some reasons why wolves may not stay in the area where they are reintroduced? 
  3. What would be helpful for people near a reintroduction area to know about wolves in case they migrate into other areas?

Fact: As with most other animal species, wolves will migrate from where they are reintroduced into other places if the habitat will support them.

Myth: "Wolves will stay in the area where they are reintroduced."

Wolves have no concept of borders, as evident in past cases when they have naturally expanded their range after reintroduction in a particular place. When species migrate to areas in their historic range, this process is known as recolonization. For example, before the Yellowstone reintroduction in 1995, Canadian wolves had begun to naturally recolonize Montana. After the Yellowstone reintroduction, the wolves within the park expanded their home range into the surrounding states of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. Even today, wolves are slowly moving into eastern Oregon, Washington, and even northern California¹.

A suitable area for releasing wolves needs to support their habitat needs and have few people. The specific area of western Colorado mountains proposed for their reintroduction fits that bill². If wolves are reintroduced into this region, however, there is no evidence to suggest that they will stay there and not expand into other suitable habitats³. No matter how suitable the habitat, there is no guarantee that the wolves will choose to limit themselves to that area permanently.


Fact: Approaching any wild animal, especially a predator, can be dangerous for both the person and the animal.

Myth: "People can get close to wolves without concern about getting hurt."

Even though the perception of wolves as dangerous killers is exaggerated, it is not safe for people to approach them or try to interact with them¹. Most instances of wolves attacking humans occur either when wolves become habituated to (comfortable with) people, or when a person runs away from the animal. Fleeing can trigger a wolf’s predatory response to chase “prey”². As with any predator, wolves are not dangerous when they are given space to move away, do not feel threatened, and are not put in a situation where they could see people as potential prey. As long as people learn about wolves’ needs and natural behaviors and use common sense, they can avoid encounters that are dangerous to both themselves and the wolf.



Points to Ponder 

Video: Unexpected Animal Attacks from AFV’s Wildest Animal Moments.
  1. Watch some or all of this video with a collection of human-wildlife encounters that don’t go so well for the people. 
Think about this as you watch the encounters: Animal behavior can be predictable if you know something about that animal or species. Wild animals in their natural habitat will behave toward people in similar ways as they would toward other animals in their habitat. Captive wild animals will also display predictable natural behaviors, but these animals undergo additional stress because they cannot escape in instances where they feel threatened. A common agreement among people who observe wild animals or work with captive animals is that if a person gets hurt by the animal, it is not the animal’s fault. The animal is displaying its natural behaviors. The fault falls on the person for not knowing how to behave around the animal. 
  • Pick two or more animal encounters. Explain why you think the animal acted aggressively toward the person. 
  • This video might make people laugh. What is its more serious message? 
  • How are the examples in this video related to this myth?
  1. The truth about wolves from BBC Earth (2015).
  2. Are wolves dangerous? from Timber Wolf Information Network.

Points to Ponder

Here is one piece of scientific research that is influencing this perception. What is the article’s main argument?
  1. Summarize why the scientist infers that the wolf is not able to restore the ecosystem on its own. 
  2. Summarize the counter-argument of other scientists. 
  3. What does the author say that everyone agrees on in the last paragraph?

Fact: Taking wolves out of an ecosystem can have negative impacts, and bringing them back can offer positive impacts.

Myth: "Reintroducing wolves to an ecosystem will completely restore it to its previous state."

Scientists agree that wolf extirpation had negative impacts on the ecosystems in question, and that bringing wolves back can offer positive impacts for these places¹. However, the amount and type of impact is the subject of continued research.

When people eradicated wolves from most of their historical range, elk populations shot up and the health of those ecosystems declined. The land changed dramatically as increasing numbers of these ungulates overgrazed woody plants like willows and aspen. It seems logical that bringing wolves back would reverse the effects on elk and the land. In fact, it is more complicated.

The relationships among the many parts of an ecosystem are quite complex, making it difficult to say that one species is essential for maintaining that ecosystem’s balance² ³. Organisms and nonliving parts of ecosystems are part of an intricately connected web. Removing any species from that web, especially a major predator like the wolf, will be disruptive and change the way that system works.

Since wolves have been gone from the ecosystem for a long time, it is difficult to predict the effects of putting them back based on what the ecosystem looked like when the animal was first removed. History and biology show that wolves could help restore health and balance to Colorado’s Rocky Mountain ecosystem. However, because they have not roamed that land since the 1930s, much has changed. Scientists can only predict how today’s ecosystem will be affected by the return of this predator. Evidence from other reintroductions suggests the effects could be positive.

Questions to Consider

The video above gives rapid-fire comparisons of myths and facts about wolves.

  • Based on what you know now, what misperceptions or myths are addressed in this video? What myths might not be addressed?
  • What is the name of the organization spearheading the efforts to bring wolves back to Colorado? 
  • What reason(s) do the producers of this video give for wanting to bring wolves back?


Many of the perceptions about wolves are exaggerated, and sit polarized at opposite ends of the spectrum. Wolves are not vicious killers unless they are hunting the source of their next dinner, but they aren’t warm and cuddly around people either. Reintroducing wolves will neither destroy lifestyles and businesses, nor will it solve all of the problems facing Colorado’s natural ecosystems. On this Quest you will need to figure out where you stand on wolf reintroduction by becoming familiar with the perceptions and scientific facts of both sides.