“The tiger and lion may be more powerful, but the wolf does not perform in the circus.”
Last week while slowly driving on a narrow gravel road in Boundary County next to a creek an animal suddenly appeared about 50 yards in front of me. We made eye contact and he immediately left the road and went down the high bank to the creek. In that glimpse I saw that he was a tan gray color and noticeably taller and longer in body than a coyote.
As I drove ahead to where he left the road I wondered if he was a wolf, one of the most mysterious animals in Boundary County. As I stopped where he left the road I saw him close to 40 yards away swimming across the creek. I tried to snap a picture with my camera but it wouldn’t focus because of the tall grass between us.
I eased my Jeep forward as he reached the west bank. He got out of the water, stopped on the creek bank and shook the water off his fur like a dog, just long enough for me to snap a memorable photo. I felt his yellow eyes as he curiously looked at me and then effortlessly bounded up the bank took one more look and loped along the creek bank and then disappeared in the forest. It was an encounter that I won’t soon forget.
Wolves are legendary because of their spine-tingling howl, which they use to communicate. A lone wolf howls to attract the attention of his pack, while communal howls may send territorial messages from one pack to another. Some howls are confrontational. Much like the barking of domestic dogs, wolves may simply begin howling because a nearby wolf has already begun.
Wolves are the largest members of the dog family. Adaptable gray wolves are by far the most common and were once found all over the Northern Hemisphere. Wolves live and hunt in packs of around six to 10 animals. They are known to roam large distances, perhaps 12 miles in a single day. These social animals cooperate on their preferred prey — large animals such as deer, elk, moose and sometimes livestock. When they are successful, wolves do not eat in moderation. A single animal can consume 20 pounds of meat at a sitting. Wolves also eat smaller mammals, birds, fish, lizards, snakes, and fruit.
Wolfpacks are established according to a strict hierarchy, with a dominant male at the top and his mate not far behind. Usually this male and female are the only animals of the pack to mate. All of a pack’s adults help to care for young pups by bringing them food and watching while the others hunt.
Gray wolves range in color from grizzled gray or black to all-white. As the ancestor of the domestic dog, the gray wolf resembles German shepherds or Malamutes. Though they once nearly disappeared from the lower 48 states, today wolves have returned to the Great Lakes and Northern Rockies.
Yellowstone National Park is one of the most favored places to see and hear wolves in their native habitat. Wolves require large areas of contiguous habitat that can include forests and mountains terrain. Wolves have unique howls, like fingerprints, that other pack members can use to tell them apart. There are an estimated 7,000 to 11,200 gray wolves in Alaska, 3,700 in the Great Lakes region and 1,675 in the Northern Rockies.
Wolves live in groups called packs. A pack is a family of 7-8 wolves with a mom, dad, and offspring. The wolves’ communication skills are very important to their pack’s survival. Wolves work together to hunt, raise their young, and protect their territory. Wolves communicate with more than howls. They whimper and whine, growl and bark, yelp and snarl. They also use scents produced by their bodies to communicate. A wolf’s scent is urine, which they use to mark territory and to tell other wolves in their own pack where they are.
Another way wolves communicate is through body language. If a wolf feels confident, it will approach another wolf with its head and tail held high and ears perked up. If you saw a wolf slinking toward another with its body lowered, its tail between its legs, and its ears flattened, you’d know it was approaching a dominant animal.
When a pack of wolves howl, it can be heard from 10 miles away. The howl is used as a way to call to another pack or warn of danger. Each pack has a unique howl, and while they don’t howl at the moon, wolves howl more when the moon is full and bright.
The alpha female and alpha male wolves of a pack usually mate for life. A wolf couple will produce one litter of pups every year. Just like humans, older brothers or sisters look after their younger siblings, the older wolf offspring care for their younger brothers and sisters by finding them food.
Enjoy the beauty of Boundary County and its wildlife!