Fact Sheet
Gray Wolf
Gray Wolf © Michael S Quinton / National Geographic Stock

Fact vs. Fiction

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. 

Myth: Wolves are wiping out elk and other prized game species

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. 109 districts are at or above management objectives and only 26 districts 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 artificial 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.

Myth: The wolves reintroduced to Yellowstone and central Idaho in the mid-90s were non-native “Canadian” wolves.

The Rocky Mountains were once 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.  The Canadian-US border is a political boundary, not a physical or a biological one.

Myth: Wolves pose a serious threat to humans and their pets.

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.

Like most other wildlife, wolves typically have an innate fear of humans and tend to keep their distance. Anyone who has watched, tracked or hunted 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. 

Myth: There are more than enough wolves on the landscape already, which means they do not need further protection.

When the Fish and Wildlife Service washed its hands  of wolves by delisting them in the Northern Rockies, it stated that there would be a minimum wolf population target in each state that would need to be maintained, or else the Service would need to consider relisting the gray wolf.   This extremely low threshold would allow all but 100 wolves to be killed in each state. Beyond just numbers, distribution is key to long-term viability of the wolf population. The three subpopulations in Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana must be connected to ensure healthy genetic exchange and for wolves to successfully fulfill their important ecological role in nature.

Minnesota alone has been able to successfully manage their wolf population to maintain more than 3,000 individuals in the northern portion of the state. With a much larger land area and excellent habitat, there’s no reason the Northern Rockies can’t support a healthy, interconnected wolf population that is ecologically recovered.

Myth: Wolves will destroy the ranching business by killing livestock

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.

Myth: Wolves kill for sport, and often kill more than they can eat

Wild carnivores do not kill for fun; they kill to survive. That said, 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 animal killed by wolves may simply be the case of wolves scavenging from the carcass of an animal that died due to other causes.

Myth: Wolves are spreading the tapeworm Echinococcus granulosus and may infect humans

This tapeworm was originally introduced to the region through domestic sheep and spread to elk and other ungulates decades ago. In fact, all the wolves reintroduced in Yellowstone were screened and treated for this parasite prior to their release. While some wolves do contract the Echinococcus tapeworm, the parasite is much more common in species like coyotes, foxes, sheep and domestic dogs. It doesn’t pose a health threat to people unless they handle the feces of an infected animal. The country’s wolf biologists, who have handled hundreds of wolves and their scat, have not contracted a single case of this parasite in the last 25 years.
 

You may also be interested in:

In the Magazine
After demanding the opportunity to manage wolves within their borders, Idaho is completely blowing it. Instead of continued recovery, what we’re seeing is a war on wolves.
Conservation Issue
We work to create and share strategies to encourage peaceful coexistence between people and wildlife.
Where We Work
Alaska remains one of the last pristine wilderness areas in the country. Defenders of Wildlife is committed to keeping it that way.