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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
|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.|