Fact Sheet
Gray Wolf
Gray Wolf, © Bruce Faanes
Gray Wolf, © Dawn Hammond

Fact vs. Fiction

Just the Facts on Wolves

Wolves have been demonized and misunderstood for much of history.

Today’s myths about wolves have become so common that they’ve become accepted as fact in parts of the West, and have been spread by anti-wolf blogs and websites seeking to frighten the public and impact political decisions regarding wolves. Unfortunately, these fabrications are now commonly found in media stories, legislative hearings and even within state wildlife agencies. They have also been reflected  in legislation and regulations that reduce protections for wolves and reduce public support for wolf conservation and deepen the conflicts between stakeholders. 

Here are the facts about gray wolves.

 

FACT: Wolves have coexisted with elk and other prized game species for centuries.

Overall, elk and deer continue to do well across the Northern Rockies. For example, in 2013, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks stated that well beyond a majority of Montana’s elk populations are in excellent shape. One hundred and nine districts are at or above management objectives and only 26 districts are below objectives set in the elk management plan.

Populations of prey species like elk naturally increase and decrease in size over time. They do so in response to changes in habitat, nutrition, disease, hunting pressure, predation, weather and a number of other factors. Sometimes predators may cause temporary local impacts on isolated herds, but predator numbers are primarily driven by the availability of their prey, which in turn is controlled by the availability of food and human hunting pressure. These intertwined factors demonstrate nature’s inherent balance, and ensure that elk, deer and other ungulates are not “wiped out” by the animals that eat them. It is also important to note that during times when wolves, grizzly bears and other predators were greatly reduced or absent on the landscape, elk and deer populations most likely reached artificially high levels.  Moreover, wolves are often blamed for putting pressure on prey animals like elk or deer, when this is more often caused by other predators like bears or mountain lions.

FACT: The wolves reintroduced to Yellowstone and central Idaho in the mid-90s are a native species that historically lived throughout North America.

The Rocky Mountains were once part of a continuous range for wolves from Canada down to Mexico. The gray wolves currently in the Northern Rockies are the same species (Canis lupus) that roamed across the region before they were eliminated by humans. In fact, wolves from the area where they were captured in Canada for the wolf reintroduction have walked on their own into central Idaho, demonstrating there is no natural boundary or barrier that would have separated wolves within the region.

FACT: Wolves typically have an innate fear of humans and tend to keep their distance.

Many westerners consider living with wildlife an important part of their natural heritage. Wolves add to that rich wildlife experience. As is true with bears, mountain lions, wolves and other wild animals, there are basic safety considerations when living, working and recreating around such wildlife. It is sensible to give wildlife adequate space, know how to avoid conflict and understand what to do in the unlikely case of an encounter.

Anyone who has watched or tracked wolves knows how difficult it can be to get close to these wary creatures. In fact, human presence is one of the strongest deterrents to wolf depredations on livestock and is a key strategy for proactive intervention.

There have been reports that wild wolves may be responsible for the death of two people in North America in the last 100 years. These attacks are indeed tragic, but they are also extremely rare. Far more humans have been killed by bee stings, accidental shootings during hunting season, and domestic dogs than by wolves or other wild predators, and many more people die from road accidents with elk, deer and cattle than from all wildlife attacks combined. 

FACT: Wolves are still not recovered in suitable habitat throughout significant portions of their range.

Gray wolves were once common throughout all of North America, but with the exception of a small remnant population in nothern Minnesota, they were eliminated from the lower 48 states by the middle of the last century. Today, wolves only inhabit approximately 36% of their suitable habitat. Defenders advocates for the restoration of wolf populations in appropriate suitable habitat that still exists out west in Colorado and parts of California, Oregon, Washington and Utah.

FACT: Wolf depredations on livestock still account for less than 1% of all livestock losses in the Northern Rockies.

More livestock are lost to other predators like mountain lions, coyotes and even stray dogs than to wolves. Far more are killed by disease, bad weather, birthing problems and other natural causes. Defenders has a successful track record of working with ranchers and other livestock producers to minimize wolf conflicts. Nonlethal methods, such as using range riders, guard dogs, portable fencing, hazing and changing animal husbandry practices have all proved highly effective in deterring wolf depredations.

FACT: Wild carnivores do not kill for fun; they kill to survive.

Wolves do sometimes kill more than they can eat in one sitting, which biologists call surplus killing. This has been documented in many carnivore species including bears, coyotes, and snow leopards, as well as wolves (Kruuk 2002). It is best recognized in cases of interactions with domestic sheep and predators. It is believed that the sheep’s ensuing panic during a predator attack triggers the increased losses not directly caused by predators such as wolves. Additionally, people often deem a wolf kill as a “sport kill” when they come upon a dead animal and little of it is eaten. People rarely take into account that perhaps they scared the wolves off of the kill before they could finish eating (Vander Wal 1990). Also, what looks like an animal killed by wolves may simply be the case of wolves scavenging from the carcass of an animal that died due to other causes.

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