Gray wolves, also known as timber or black wolves, once had the greatest natural range of any living mammal except man. Wolves were found throughout Asia, Europe, and North America, but due to unregulated hunting, commercial exploitation, and habitat destruction, they are now extinct over much of their former range. Although most wolves live in packs, occasionally a wolf may be rejected by its pack or a young wolf may leave a pack to look for its own territory and live independently for a time. This 'Lone Wolf' may wander for many months before finding another pack to join. Through games and interaction with siblings, playful gray wolf pups learn essential survival skills and complex social relationships. Pups learn to hunt through imitation and trial-and-error, and at six or seven months the pups test their new abilities and join other pack members in hunting for food.
Wolves capture the essence of our dwindling wilderness, as they require large undeveloped expanses in order to survive. Protecting the few remaining areas that still contain populations of wolves is crucial to maintaining our nation's natural heritage and providing wilderness experiences for future generations. Alaska and Minnesota host the largest gray wolf populations in the United States, however wolves are endangered in the remaining continental states. World Wildlife Fund works to protect the coastal temperate rain forest of Alaska, home to Alexander Archipelago Wolves and other wildlife threatened by habitat destruction.
Wolves communicate through howling and by using facial expressions which vary from submissive 'grins' to bared teeth 'threats'. The direct stare and raised tail of a dominant or alpha wolf reinforces its leadership position. Other pack members may look down, keep their tail somewhat lower and ears held back to show their submission to the alpha male. The wolf pack is a close-knit social unit. Each pack has a leader called the alpha. In a 'group ceremony' the members of a wolf pack surround the leader and nose-push, lick his face or tenderly seize his muzzle. This group ceremony takes place as a greeting when the wolves wake-up, as a rally when wolves have separated and regrouped, and often as a spontaneous display of playful good feeling.
A great warrior, a symbol of our earth's vanishing wilderness, the wolf has been the subject of stories, myths and folk tales for centuries. The wolf is many things to different cultures and interest groups. In point of fact, the wolf is one of the most powerful and elusive predators to wander this continent, and it now faces the threat of extinction because it has been misunderstood by most people. Wolves have incredible athletic abilities. Their jaws are powerful enough to crack open the femur bone of an adult bison. They also have amazing levels of endurance. They can trot for hours, easily covering 50 miles a day. Wolves can reach speeds of 40 miles per hour. They also have superior sensory mechanisms. Their hearing is acute and their vision can detect movement long before any human. It is their nose that makes them superior predators and may enable them to decipher the differences between healthy and weak or sick animals.
Wolves feed on large animals such as moose, deer, elk, caribou, bison and musk oxen. Prey animals are not defenseless and may be four times larger than a wolf. These large animals can fracture wolf bones. Consequently, wolves are very selective with their prey. They 'test' it, before attempting to kill it. If the prey appears healthy and fit, the wolves abandon the chase and search for a weaker target. While the urge to hunt and kill is instinctive for a wolf, it learns what and how to kill from its pack. Once wolves reach adulthood they rarely experiment with new prey animals. This is one reason that predation on livestock is less frequent than may seem likely.
Fact vs. Myth - The Gray Wolf was viewed as a grave threat to domestic livestock and was nearly exterminated during this country's westward expansion. While wolves do occasionally kill livestock, the numbers do not justify the hatred some feel toward this animal. Losses of livestock to wolves in areas with healthy wolf populations are relatively rare. Less than 1% of the sheep and cattle living in the wolf range in Canada are killed by wolves annually. Livestock losses to poisonous plants, diseases and poor husbandry practices are much higher. The perception of wolves as dangerous creatures stems less from truths than from cultural myths. For centuries, the wolf has been used as a symbol of evil in European and American society, and a vast array of folklore has grown up around it. Why is the wolf subjected to all this misunderstanding? Perhaps because the Wolf is seen as a symbol of wildness. Traditionally, human society has wanted to dominate nature. The wolf may have become a symbol of evil primarily because it could not be tamed.
Social Behavior - Perhaps one of the reasons that humans have feared and told stories about the wolf for so many centuries is because its behavior is so similar to ours. Wolves are highly social animals that live in family units called packs. Wolf packs usually consist of a breeding pair, pups of the year, and older offspring. Like humans, some wolves stay with their families until they die, others leave the pack during adolescence in search of uninhabited territory and a mate. The number of animals in a pack varies depending on the size and availability of prey in the pack's territory. Packs rarely number more than 12. Only one pair of animals in a pack mate and produce pups. Pups are usually born in late April in the Rockies. The average litter size is 5 to 6. The whole pack participates in caring for and raising the pups. During the spring and summer all attention is focused on the pups, but in the fall when the pups are strong enough to keep up, the pack resumes its nomadic existence within the territory.
Wolves communicate in a variety of ways. They are best known for their melodious, eerie and spine tingling howls. Wolves howl to advertise their presence and warn strange wolves away from their territory. to gather the pack when they become separated and as a bonding ceremony. Before a hunt, pack members gather, lick each other's muzzles and engage in a group howl. Wolves do not howl at the full moon. This misperception may have developed because wolves tend to hunt on nights when the moon is full and visibility is good. Wolves also have sophisticated sign language. The position of their tails, ears and lips let other wolves know whether they are submissive, want to play or are going to attack.