When I was a young boy, biologist Farley Mowat’s book “Never Cry Wolf” eloquently described nature and wolves like the world had never known before. Wolves are exquisite predators; it’s time for humans to grant amnesty to this majestic animal, which plays a pivotal role in the wild.
Portrayed throughout history as a villainous critter that wastefully kills, the wolf’s reputation precedes it. The traditional image, however, is unwarranted and incorrect.
Wolves are highly intelligent social animals. They are a critically important predator in the western food chain. They keep populations of ungulates (or animals with hooves) healthy. In nature there is no room for unfit or disease-ridden animals. When wolves eat, so too do a host of other animals including wolverines, lynx, bobcats, mink, weasels, hares, porcupines, squirrels, mice, voles, shrews, ravens and crows.
Wolves’ ancestry dates back to about 15 million years ago. They are related to foxes and domesticated dogs. There are two species in North America, the gray or timber wolf, and the red wolf. Wolves have the largest natural range of any animal on our continent and their main predator is humans. Hence, they have been hunted and poisoned, at one point to near extinction. Thankfully, they are survivors.
The translation of the wolf’s Latin name is literally “dog wolf,” and for good reason. Wolves and dogs share common features. They both have a similar gestation time of about two months. And they both molt in the spring and grow winter coats in response to seasonal differences in temperatures.
Wolves, however, do have distinct features. Their ears are relatively shorter, broad at the base and less pointy at the tip than those of most dogs. They have large heads with wide and heavy skulls which curve downward and blend into a broad but tapering muzzle that ends with a black nose. Their jaws have tremendous biting power.
They have longer legs than most dogs, with paws that are longer and wider in the front compared to the back. They have five frontal and four back toes. The fifth frontal toe is actually called a dewclaw and is used to help secure, hold and bring down prey. Because it’s not necessary for locomotion, many dog owners have dewclaws removed. Big springy feet assist wolves in attaining a top end speed of about 40 mph. More usually though they travel at 5 to 6 mph while tracking prey for hours on end.
Wolves are large critters, ranging in size from 5 to 6 feet in length with an average weight of 88 pounds. Females are about 15 percent smaller than males.
One of the most remarkable aspects about wild animals, particularly in the north country, is how they manage with cold winter temperatures. It has to do with their winter coats. And wolves have a terrific two-layered coat. The outer layer consists of guard hairs that shed moisture, keeping the coat free of dirt and burs because of the hard, smooth, slippery hairs. Their thick under-fur contains an oily substance similar to sheep’s lanolin, helping make it impermeable to cold temperatures.
Wolves, like human beings, are very social animals. And not dissimilarly to us, they have a social hierarchy. Packs have between six and nine members but can be as large as 36. There is one dominant male and female, called alphas, in each pack. Order in the pack is achieved by various postures, stares and physical punishment. Status is shown by the way the other pack members carry tails, eyes and head positions. Subservience is demonstrated by bearing the throat, lifting the leg or exposing the groin.
Wolves howl; humans sing in the shower. Why? Because we both like to.
Wolves are fierce hunters, relying upon their keen power of scent to track their prey. Moose, elk, caribou and deer are their preferred prey. They hunt in a pack. The alpha male will test the prey. If it stands its ground wolves will not challenge it. If it runs the pack will quickly bring it down. Most wolf kills are old, unfit or young prey. Wolf digestive systems break down every bit of protein and their scat contains very little fecal matter.
Wolves are survivors, they will eat beavers, snakes, porcupines, grouse, ducks, voles, mice, rabbits, vegetables, grasses, herbs, mushrooms, fruit and, when low in vitamin C, they will gnaw in the springtime on rich tree bark for its supplements.
Like humans, wolves enjoy playing and grinning. They have suffered from an unnecessary war that we have waged against them for centuries, and somehow managed to survive. Wolves are a symbol of courage, endurance, and admirable intelligence.
Yet today they still continue to be loathed, hunted and “managed.” Let me remind you that human management in nature has resulted in entire fish stocks on the East Coast disappearing i.e. North Atlantic cod and the eradication of most of North America’s old growth forests (the most efficient CO2 warehouses ever to evolve on planet Earth).
This holiday season I urge you to support Defenders of Wildlife, Pacific Wild and Wolf Songs of Alaska and learn more about the Red Wolf Recovery Program, the Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Program and the Yellowstone National Park Wolves. It’s time for us to stop senselessly slaughtering wolves — once and for all!
Earth Dr. Reese Halter is a broadcaster and biologist. He’s the author of “The Incomparable Honeybee” and “The Insatiable Bark Beetle.”