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Wolf study: pack size matters



By Deb Courson Smith, Big Sky Connection

The most highly efficient predator hunting elk is not the wolf.

A new study of wolves’ elk-hunting abilities finds that Mother Nature didn’t give wolves the best set of tools–and that they would be more successful if they were built more like cats or bears.

It’s also not uncommon for wolves to be mortally wounded by elk hooves and horns, according to the study. One of its co-authors, wildlife ecologist Dan MacNulty, an assistant professor in Utah State University’s Department of Wildland Resources, shares another finding:

“This impression that we have of larger packs being more dangerous in terms of their ability to hunt is incorrect.”

In fact, he found, hunting success levels out with four wolves in a pack. MacNulty says wolves do tend to gather in large packs, but the reasons why are unrelated to food.

“One of those problems is maintaining territories. Bigger packs tend to be more successful at maintaining a territory than are smaller packs.”

MacNulty says he has encountered a general belief that elk are highly vulnerable to wolves–but he has found that’s clearly not true. He explains why wolves target aging animals.

“Those younger, prime-aged individuals are extremely feisty, and they will stand and defend themselves. Very common for elk to simply just confront wolves and run them off.”

The wolves and elk studied were in Yellowstone National Park.

The study, “Nonlinear Effects of Group Size on the Success of Wolves Hunting Elk,” is in the September-October issue of the journal Behavioral Ecology, and is online at

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