Wolves once had one of the largest natural ranges of any terrestrial mammal in the Northern Hemisphere. Packs once populated diverse regions from the Arctic tundra south to Mexico, but rapidly diminishing habitat led to their endangerment throughout most of the US by the early 1900s. Cattle ranchers believed wolves were a threat to their livelihood, so the follow up hunting and poisoning quickly devastated already threatened wolf populations. Just short of 50 years ago the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service named Canis lupus an endangered species and designated the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem a recovery area. It is still one of the few protected havens for gray wolves in the U.S. From 1995 to 1997, resulting from this much needed designation, 41 wild wolves from Canada and northwest Montana were released in Yellowstone.
Currently there are at least 123 Yellowstone National Park wolves in nine packs. While this is less than the post-reintroduction peak of 175 in the mid-2000s, scientists believe that today’s number more accurately represents the true carrying capacity of the park now that prey populations have been brought back into balance by the wolves. The wolf population in the entire Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is now just over 520 in approximately 75 different packs. Curious visitors to the national park can have the chance of a lifetime to see them in a natural habitat.
The best place to wolf watch in Yellowstone is during dusk and dawn in Lamar Valley, where the aptly named Lamar Canyon Pack is often the most visible. While wolves are found in many places in the park, Hayden Valley, the Canyon area and Blacktail Deer Plateau are usually reliable places to go wolf watching. In Yellowstone, the average territory size is 165 square miles overall, with territories in the northern section of the park being about one-third the size of the ranges in the interior of the park because of the high concentration of elk in the north (the size of a pack’s territory is directly related to prey availability).
Remember – hearing a howl does not always mean a wolf is close. A howl can travel more than six miles in forested areas and almost ten miles in more open areas! Usually, but not always, the alpha of the group initiates a howl, and no, they don’t just randomly howl at the moon. Howling is understood as a social rally call, a hail to hunt or to mark territory with other packs. Wolf watchers should know that body language is also an important communication tool and watching them closely can tell an observer much about a wolf and its place in the pack. Dominant wolves may display raised hackles (the hair on the back of the neck), bared teeth, wrinkled foreheads and erect, forward-pointing ears. A more subordinate wolf may lower its tail and body position, expose its throat, peel back its lips and fold back its ears.
There is undeniably something captivating about wolves. Born blind and deaf and weighing only one pound, wolf pups are completely dependent on their mother for the first couple of weeks of life. But by six months of age, pups can generally weigh in around 60 pounds and begin to travel and hunt with the pack. Fully grown, they can bite with more than 1200 pounds per square inch. For that number to register, think of it this way – the mastiff has the most ferocious and effective bite of any dog, yet comes in with a strength and be in awe of these magnificent creatures?
Their role as predator is a very important one and should never be underestimated. Wolves balance ecosystems and make them more diverse and healthy. Wolves consume a wide variety of prey of all sizes, from small fish and rabbits to large prey that other predators cannot easily kill. In Yellowstone, 90% of their winter prey is elk (and they are also known to kill bison), and 10–15% of their summer prey is deer. In the past when there was a lack of predators in Yellowstone National Park, the elk population exploded. When there are no predators, prey such as deer and elk are relaxed and do little more than eat and breed. This leads to overgrazing and unsustainable population increases. Change in animal behavior throughout an ecosystem from predator effects is known as a trophic cascade. For example, when excessive numbers of deer and elk were allowed to overgraze, wild grasslands were basically munched down into not much more than lawns. Once wolves were reintroduced in Yellowstone and prey were kept more on their toes and were forced to move around, grass and trees started regrowing in valley grassland areas. There grew more trees around streams, rivers and lakes, which encouraged beavers to recolonize and build dams. These dams, and the water channels they dig to transport their logs, hold water within the landscape, leading to better plant growth, more varied habitat and thus more animal diversity.
The repercussions don’t end there. Many other animals in Yellowstone benefit from the predatory nature of the gray wolf. For example, when wolves kill an elk, ravens and magpies come to the scene almost immediately. Coyotes arrive soon after, waiting nearby until the wolves are sated. Bears then get in on the act, and many other smaller animals like eagles or invertebrates can feast on the remains.
With all this talk about how they can take down large prey, it’s good to remember that wolves are not dangerous to humans. There have been no reported fatalities over the last 100 years, as wolves are naturally cautious and afraid of people. So don’t hesitate to plan a trip to see these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat—and what better place to see them then in a national park as diverse and gorgeous as Yellowstone?