After being pushed to near extinction, Gray wolves have made a drastic turnaround across North America. As these animals continue to grapple with survival, we might ask ourselves: why are wolves worth saving? The more people learn about wolves, the more inspiration we find to protect them. These socially complex and highly intelligent canines bear many similarities to the domestic dogs we know and love. This species’ strong will to survive is a tale of inspiring resilience. Here are a few facts- and a few myths- about Gray wolves.
Wolves Are Deeply Social Animals
Familial connection runs deep in every wolf pack. These complex animals live in social groups for the entirety of their lives. Most packs range from four to nine individuals, though a group as small as two can technically be considered a “pack”. Gray wolves can often roam in groups of up to fifteen, and in rare cases, a pack can hold as many as thirty or more individuals. The Druid Peak wolf pack was one of these special groups, which at its peak, consisted of 37 members. Sadly, the pack was fragmented and killed off by humans.
Parental instincts in wolves are strong, despite the fact that most wolves will not breed in their lifetime. Each pack has one breeding pair- also known as the pack’s “alpha” female and male. This dynamic is less complicated than most understand it to be. More information on this can be found in the next section. When the breeding pair has a litter of puppies, every family member partakes in raising them.
Pups stick close to mom until weaning time, around seven weeks, and at that time, the entire pack becomes more and more involved. Gray wolves take turns “babysitting” the pups while other members go out to hunt, which can take several days. This serves as crucial bonding time between the wolf pups and their lifelong family members.
“Alpha” Wolves are Overblown by Public Perception
When the general public thinks of wolf pack dynamics, the first thing that often comes to mind is the concept of an “alpha” and an “omega”. The image most people conjure up of an “alpha” wolf would likely involve snapping of teeth, pinning pack members down in forced submission, and generally aggressive, assertive behavior. Sadly, this notion has caused a great deal of harm to both wolves and their domestic counterparts, dogs.
The idea of savage and ruthless wolf hierarchies has contributed to the demonization of wolves in the media and in the public eye. Hoping to carry out wolf-like discipline, many dog owners have taken to abusing their beloved pets by slamming them down and pinning them on their backs in what outdated dog trainers called the “alpha roll”.
In reality, the studies that led to these beliefs were carried out in the 70s and 80s, mostly on captive wolves. Without the ability to create space from one another, the captive wolves used in these studies often used elevated forms of communication that did not accurately depict wild wolf dynamics.
Modern behavioral science tells us that alpha wolves are simply breeding pairs, the parents of the rest of the pack. It is true that the status of the breeding pair often comes with a high place in the social hierarchy. But this is maintained through cooperation, leadership, and earned respect among pack members.
Pups do not grow up to violently overthrow their parents and become the new alpha. Instead, breeding pairs will simply break off from the pack to start their own families. Emotionally reactive, unstable, and highly aggressive leaders are generally unsuccessful in maintaining a long-term pack.
Gray Wolves Love to Play
It may be tough to survive as an animal in the wild, but that doesn’t mean life is always serious for wolves. In a successful pack, there is plenty of time for fun and games! Play behavior is documented in countless species, wolves included. Play serves many purposes in a wolf pack. It creates bonds among family members, lightens moods, reduces conflict, and most importantly, gives wolves the ability to practice real-life skills. Chasing, hunting, and self-defense are replicated in a lighthearted way when wolves play together. Wolves may not know it when they’re having fun, but they are fine-tuning the skills that will continue to keep them alive. Group play sessions can even help practice and facilitate the social cooperation that needs to take place during hunts.
It’s not just pups who play, either. While youngsters tend to play more often, wolves of all ages engage in play. Frequent play reflects healthy pack dynamics.
Gray wolves also share many play behaviors with domestic dogs. Does your dog quickly drop their front legs to the ground, with their rump held high in the air? That’s called the “play bow”, and it’s used to communicate playful intentions across the canine world. Just like your dog uses the play bow to initiate a game of “catch me if you can”, wolves use the play bow to start the fun!
Most Wild Wolves are Terrified of Humans
Many horror movies, shows, and books depict wolves hunting humans. How many times have you watched a scene where wolves emerge from a forest, growling and snarling, surrounding a helpless person? In these scenes, the victim tries to escape as the howling wolves begin to close in. In real life, the only reason you’d need to fear a wolf…is if you were an elk.
It’s deeply ingrained in Gray wolves’ ancestry to be petrified of humans. When European colonizers arrived on North American soil, they carried out a mass eradication of wolves. Wolf-killing competitions were popular. Not even newborn pups were safe. Historical documents reveal dens full of Gray wolf puppies intentionally drowned, beaten to death, and worse. By the early 1900s, wolves in the United States were nearly extinct.
The Endangered Species Act saved the species from extinction, but in many U.S. states, deep hatred of wolves still runs rampant.
Wolves pass down survival skills and knowledge across generations, so human avoidance is an instinct almost all wild wolves carry. Gray wolves are elusive animals, and in order to spot them, you’d have to go far out of your way and deep into backcountry regions.
In the last century, three humans have been killed by wolves in the United States, with one wolf being a pet, and one being rabid.
Gray Wolves are Vital to Ecosystem Health
Gray wolves’ native range spans North America, Europe, and Asia. In all ecosystems that wolves belong in, they are considered Apex predators. This means that they are top predators- no animal regularly hunts them for sustenance. Apex predators play a critical role in keeping prey animal populations at a safe capacity.
Overpopulation of prey animals such as deer and elk can be catastrophic. Grazing animals can destroy sensitive native plants, cause soil erosion, and spread disease to neighboring populations. By “thinning out the herd” and keeping prey numbers in check, wolves prevent all of this.
By preventing unhealthy animals from reproducing, wolves actually help prey animals’ genetics in the long run. Humans have trouble replicating this because human hunters tend to seek out the strongest and healthiest individuals as opposed to the weakest, who wolves are able to catch. Wolves have been keeping ecosystems healthy for thousands of years!