I once followed a set of wolf tracks on a sandbar along the Goodnews River in southwestern Alaska’s Togiak National Wildlife Refuge. I wondered if the lone wolf had been hunting or if it was a lone male searching for a territory, a mate, or was simply trying to avoid detection by the resident pack. Its great stride suggested all of the above.
At one point I knelt down to take a closer look at the animal’s paw print in the sand. It was enormous to say the least. My hand fit neatly inside the pad of the track.
The wolf also lives in Minnesota. In fact, no other place in the Lower 48 has more wolves than Minnesota. Wolves once roamed all over the world, too. In North America, the wolf is only plentiful in Canada and Alaska, but healthy and thriving populations also lives and hunts in Wisconsin, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, including Yellowstone National Park.
As many of you know, federal protection as a result of the 1973 Endangered Species Act protects wolves in Minnesota and other states. From an estimated population of around 750 wolves inhabiting northern Minnesota during the 1950s to about 2,500 wolves today, Minnesota’s wolf population has certainly recovered. Around 5,600 gray wolves live in the lower 48, and of those about 3,700 inhabit the Upper Midwest.
The eastern gray wolf, or timber wolf as the animal is also called, is a striking looking animal that ranges in color from all black to all white, yet with most exhibiting grayish coloration. Growing large, a male gray wolf can reach a weight of 120 pounds. Long-legged, males can stand nearly three feet tall at the shoulder and attain lengths close to seven feet long from the tip of their nose to the tip of their tail.
A highly intelligent pack animal, wolves are well known for living out their lives together in groups of anywhere from a few individuals to as many as 30. Each pack establishes well-marked territories that are obvious to adjacent wolf packs. The markings, which are not evident to most people, include visual signs like scat, as well as scent markings that involve urinating on noticeable objects such as trees, stumps, and rocks. It is estimated that 470 wolf packs exist in Minnesota today.
The size of a pack’s territory is highly variable. In fact, territories for individual wolf packs in Alaska and Canada can be as large as 300 to 1,000 square miles. Most packs in northern Minnesota, where some 3,000 wolves are thought to exist, usually have much smaller territories of no more than 150 square miles in size.
Not long ago, in January and February, sometimes as late as March, mating took place among dominant male and female wolves of each of the respective packs throughout Minnesota. Pups, born about two months later and typically inside burrows dug by the mated pairs, usually number around four to six per litter.
The pups, like all members of the canid family, including domestic dogs, are born helpless with their eyes and ears closed. The youngsters remain inside the den for up to eight weeks, nursing first, and then gradually feeding on prey brought to them — either in regurgitated form or whole.
Wolf pups behave like all pups, again, domestic dogs included. As their rapidly growing bodies develop, the energetic pups frolic and roughhouse with one another continuously. And, as is often related by wildlife research biologists, the sole reason for all this play has more to do with “preparing” them for real-life dramas that will inevitably prevail once they reach adulthood. Those dramas, of course, are when the innocence of youth is replaced by the struggle of everyday survival and finding food.
At around six months of age, wolf pups begin to join their pack on the necessary hunts that take place when the need to eat arises. These hunts commonly begin with much anticipation, excitement and howling. Howling, so important in wolf society, serves to “rally the troops” and to warn other nearby packs to stay clear of their territory. Even smaller pups, too young to assist with the actual hunt, join in with the howling.
Prey, which include rabbits and hares, beaver, and even mice and voles, are most often larger animals such as moose, deer, elk, and bison. In Minnesota, the No. 1 prey species for gray wolves is the white-tailed deer. Interestingly, at least in Manitoba, wolves will switch to beaver as their No. 1 prey at a certain time of the year. At a workshop that I attended recently, a Manitoba Department of Conservation biologist studying wolf and prey interactions determined that during the month of April and May when beavers became active on land following ice-out, wolves switched from preying on deer and moose to preying exclusively on beavers.
I believe we are lucky to be living in a place where a thriving population of wolves still roam, howl and hunt deer in the deep woods. Their presence not only serves as proof that suitable and spacious wild places teeming with abundant game continue to persist, the gray wolf also provides us an opportunity to observe its natural role in a healthy and functioning ecosystem as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.