Wolves have captured our imagination in books and stories. They have been maligned and hunted, yet somehow we are still fascinated by this elusive and secretive animal.
The gray wolf (Canis lupus) is the largest canid in North America, closely related to the coyote and the fox. A wolf is an impressive animal, measuring 5 to 6 feet long and weighing 55 to 130 pounds. Wolves live in packs, the basic social unit. A typical pack will consist of an alpha pair, pups of the current year, and young from the previous year. Wolves are primarily carnivores, feeding on larger hoofed animals such as deer, moose, and caribou. They sometimes will take smaller game, but feeding on larger prey ensures food for all members of the pack.
The wolf's life cycle is seasonal. Mating of the dominant pair or alpha pair takes place in January or February. Gestation is about 65 days. Pups stay with their parents a relatively long time as is typical with larger predators. The pups will leave the pack usually by the second winter. While some pups can fend for themselves by four months, the extra time in the pack gives them a chance to fully mature and learn from their parents.
Many misconceptions exist about wolves, perhaps in part because of fairy tales and children's stories. While there have been cases of human attacks in Europe and Asia, attacks in North America are extremely rare. As wolf biologist Dr. David Mech, recounts, early settlers did not fear wolves and were surprised that wolves did not attack humans. Today, those living and visiting places in wolf territory often never encounter a wolf.
On the other hand, pet wolves or so-called wolf hybrids are dangerous. These animals have killed at least nine children in the United States from 1986 to 1994. The deadly combination of an animal with no fear of humans and the instincts of a wild animal can be deadly.
Wolves are well-adapted to the sometimes feast-or-famine hunter lifestyle, gorging themselves when successful and going days without food. Mech observed a pack of 15 wolves devour half of a 600-pound moose in an hour and a half. Clearly, this is testimony to the adaption of this predator. Survival for the wolves depends upon their ability to adapt.
Wolves were once commonplace in North America. Today, their range is reduced to seven states. Alaska and Minnesota have the largest populations. As with other wildlife species, humans are their biggest threat. As humans move deeper into wolf territory, the potential for conflict and livestock predation increases. Education and proper animal husbandry practices can reduce the risk.
The gray wolf is a multi-faceted animal from pack member to superior hunter to devoted parent. It is a magnificent animal that causes fear, yet fills our dreams with stories and myths.