By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist
“Many people—especially those opposed to wolves—think of the wolf as a killing machine. And in a general sense they are right.”
Across decades of writing about wolves and the science associated with their study, I’ve seldom encountered a more gripping opening to a natural history book than the one above.
It appears in the introduction to a recent tome published on lobos, “Wolves on the Hunt: The Behavior of Wolves Hunting Wild Prey.” And it’s authored by three prominent experts on wolf ecology: the U.S. Geological Survey’s L. David Mech, Yellowstone biologist Douglas Smith, and Utah State University professor Daniel MacNulty.
Their provocative opening continues with this observation: “At first glance, it certainly appears that a wolf, or especially a pack of wolves, can kill just about anything it wants. In fact, many laypeople even believe that wolves kill for the sheer sport of it. The reality is different and far more interesting.”
“Wolves on the Hunt” is an in-depth analysis of how wolves kill prey to survive. And the book could not come at a better time.
Even though this is 2016, there remain in the American West some puritanical notions about alleged wolf behavior that have little traction in reality.
Last year I received an email from a Jackson Hole resident who claimed that wolves are single-handedly responsible for falling moose numbers in our region—even though moose populations are declining fast in many parts of the Lower 48 and wolves generally rank lower on a long list of factors.
Mech, considered the world’s foremost wolf authority, and his colleagues deliver a hair-raising—and at times grim—narrative on how lobos stalk moose, deer, elk, caribou, Dall sheep, mountain goats, bison, musk oxen, arctic hares, beavers, waterfowl, even salmon.
In a nutshell, they conclude that no matter how it appears, no matter how smart Canis lupus is, it’s not easy being a wolf.
Not only are most attempts at bringing down prey unsuccessful, but such episodes, the researchers note, are fraught with the unforgiving perils of meeting sharp, lethal horns and skull-crunching hoof kicks. Outwit danger today; tomorrow, you might not be so lucky.
The authors provide an abundance of field observations illustrating the highly evolved defense strategies prey use to fend off attacks.
Most enlightening, based on many cited examples of how wolves target each species, is that many of the modern scientifically supported notions about wolves actually do hold up.
Yes, lobos do tend to target the sick, injured, old, weakened, young and otherwise vulnerable. Why? Because it’s safer and the odds of achieving success are improved.
On the other hand and sure to delight wolf critics, lobos sometimes do kill more prey—such as calves— than they need, but those incidents tend to be exceptions rather than the rule.
Here’s another factoid: “The odds of elk being encountered by wolves was 1.3 times higher in pine forest and 4.1 times less in grasslands than other habitats.” The authors surmise that both elderly elk and moose, feeling vulnerable in open country, retreat into wooded terrain where they ironically become easier marks.
Certainly, wolves are not gentle dispatchers, the authors note. They secure their meals with the dental tools nature gave them.
Yet, in truth, little killing anywhere is ever pretty or clean; livestock slaughterhouses, gut-shot elk wounded by poor marksmanship, and leg-hold trapping of animals for their fur are not scenes for the feint of heart.
Also, wolf opponents forget: The very elusive big-game species they covet are creatures sharpened and made more resilient by the predators that have pursued them.
The authors write, “And so it goes, day after day, as wolves continue their rounds, ever searching for more vulnerable prey animals—chasing, missing, trying again and again, and eventually connecting. The net result of all this sifting and selecting of prey over eons is that prey gradually get faster, smarter, and more alert.”
Indeed, compared to having slower, dumber and more docile critters dominating the public landscape, isn’t it a good thing to have public wildlife being made faster, smarter, and more alert?
No matter what lobo camp you’re in, you’ll find “Wolves on the Hunt” to be endlessly fascinating reading.
Todd Wilkinson’s New West column appears here every week. He is author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” about famous Grizzly 399 featuring 150 photographs by noted American nature photographer Thomas D. Mangelsen and only available at mangelsen.com/grizzly. He also is author of a profile on Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk in the current issue of Mountain Outlaw magazine now on newsstands.
Editor’s note: Wilkinson’s “New West” column runs online each Friday on explorebigsky.com, and bimonthly in the Explore Big Sky newspaper.