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The Truth About Wolves: Alpha Predators On The Rise

North America's wolf population is growing, as is the public's concern for the predators' impact on other native wildlife species.

The Truth About Wolves: Alpha Predators On The Rise

My introduction to the realities of predator versus prey happened rather cruelly. I was with my grandfather taking a morning drive to look for deer. He slowly drove along a narrow, winding forest road that took us through a series of hay meadows separated by large tracts of spruce and poplar trees. As we slowly followed the trail around a sharp bend and into another small opening, Grandpa suddenly hit the brakes. His single utterance, “wolves,” put me on instant alert, and I turned just in time to get a two-second glimpse of two wolves disappearing into the forest.

I was surprised by how close they were to the pickup, not that I knew anything about wolves, but I was old enough to know wild animals didn’t let humans get this close to them for no reason. When I looked in my grandpa’s direction, I saw what had caused us to get so close to the wolves. It was a whitetail doe. Her head was up, and she was dragging herself by her front legs; most of her back legs and rump had been eaten away by the wolves.

That scene left a strong enough impression on me to make it last throughout my life. I can still see it in vivid detail more than 50 years later.

The wolf, or Canis lupus, can be found in several states and all the Canadian provinces. According to Wikipedia, North America’s current grey wolf population is around 80,000 animals. About 18,000 wolves live in the U.S.; Alaska holds two-thirds of that population. Almost every state and province that has wolves today is reporting population increases. Original grey wolf territory, except for a few coastal locations, once covered nearly all North America. Some scientists have estimated that up to one million wolves may have once roamed the continent. However, by the turn of the twentieth century, the grey wolves’ population had diminished to an estimated 250,000 animals.


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About 18,000 wolves live in the U.S.; Alaska holds two-thirds of that population. Almost every state and province that has wolves today is reporting population increases. Photo by AB Photographie, Shutterstock

Theodore Roosevelt, known for his environmental and conservationist activism, declared the wolf “the beast of waste and destruction” and called for its eradication. As a result, by 1960, an estimated 300 wolves remained within the lower 48 states. The Endangered Species Act of 1974 changed everything for the grey wolf, and as a direct result, its population has seen a slow but steady increase ever since.

By the 1980s, the grey wolf populations and range within Minnesota and Michigan had more than doubled from the 1960’s estimate. Also, during the 80s, a pack of wolves crossed the border from Alberta into northwestern Montana and established its new territory. Ecologists referred to these wolves as being “The Magic Pack.” The Great Lakes population of grey wolves continued to grow, and by the early 1990s, wolf packs had established territories in northern Wisconsin. Out west, other wolf packs followed the Magic Pack into Northwest Montana’s Glacier National Park area and established territories of their own. Reports of wolf sightings from the Cascade Mountains of Washington had ecologists excited.

By the end of the 1990s, the U.S. had established viable grey wolf populations within seven states. Outside of the Endangered Species Act, the biggest game changer for the grey wolf was reintroducing wolves to Yellowstone National Park and Idaho. It took years of heated political battles but eventually, 31 wolves were released into Yellowstone and 23 others into the Frank Church Wilderness area of Idaho.


Recently, because the Yellowstone and Idaho introductions were so successful, it was determined to delist the Rocky Mountain grey wolf from the Endangered Species List. Also, Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin have seen wolf populations increase to support limited hunting opportunities. As a result, in the last 30 years, the wolf population in the U.S. has grown from less than 300 to nearly 6,000 animals. It’s been a remarkable and successful recovery effort and one that we should all be proud of. However, this recovery has not come without its controversy and challenges. For example, wolves need to eat, which is the cause of problems wherever they live in today’s crowded world.

Wolf packs need a lot of room, with some packs establishing territories larger than 400-square miles. However, the average size territory is closer to 100-square miles, with some pack territories being as small as 15-square miles in size. The density of available food determines the size of a pack’s territory. Small territories are better for the wolf pack simply because there is less area to defend.




Whitetail hunting in an area with an active wolf pack can significantly impact your success. Where wolf pack territories overlap, a buffer zone gets created. For wolves, this area of territorial overlap is a dangerous location where packs fight for territory rights. Individual wolves learn to avoid these areas. Thus, the whitetail has learned to find and use these “safe” pockets where wolf territories overlap. If you happen to hunt within one of these overlapping pockets, you probably experience decent hunting, while the camp a few miles down the road is cussing the wolves for killing all the deer.

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It’s hard to nail down any science that indicates how many deer an average wolf will consume within a year. One study indicated that one adult wolf might consume 27 deer per year in areas with low moose numbers. Photo by livewithwolves.org

Ranchers and wolves have long been at odds in western states. But, most recently, more and more hunting groups are beginning to speak out against the growing wolf population’s impacts on local big game herds, the concern being the declining numbers of those herds.

According to biggameforever.com, the Shiras Moose population in northwestern Wyoming, eastern Idaho, and southeastern Montana has declined from 50 to 90 percent from their pre-wolf introduction population in the mid-90s. In addition, according to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, during this same period, the population of the Northern Yellowstone elk herd is down 80 percent from nearly 20,000 in the mid-90s to less than 4,000 animals today. If wolves can impact large ungulate populations, what impacts are they having on whitetail deer? In northern Minnesota, where wolves have quadrupled their numbers and size of their range since the 1970s, the wolves’ impact on deer herds is beginning to draw concern from hunters and landowners alike.

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It’s hard to nail down any science that indicates how many deer an average wolf will consume within a year. One study indicated that one adult wolf might consume 27 deer per year in areas with low moose numbers. Across the northern Minnesota deer range, this could equate to roughly 80,000 deer lost each year. It’s no wonder hunters are beginning to speak up.

The whitetail deer is a hunting cornerstone that generates billions of dollars yearly for local economies. Remote locations in the northern deer and wolf range rely on the income generated from the deer seasons. When deer numbers are low, these local businesses suffer. These businesses may feel the financial pinch for years to come. As a result of the impact wolves are having on deer populations within northeastern Minnesota, there has been an influx of hunting camps and cabins offered for sale.

“Approximately the northern third of the state, we get many reports that wolf sign and activity has drastically diminished the deer herd,” says Mac Perry, a Realtor with Turpen Realty of Cambridge, Minnesota. “Many families have invested in hunting land and have a great passion for deer hunting. But it’s tougher to enjoy and get kids involved when the deer numbers are depleted. It’s unfortunate because their land is beneficial to all wildlife. But nobody wants to invest in land and pay the mortgage and taxes yearly to manage wolf numbers.”

Isn’t it common sense that declining prey numbers would result from increased predator numbers? But, unfortunately, science wants us to think otherwise. State biologists say wolves aren’t driving the low deer numbers.

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Across the northern Minnesota deer range, roughly 80,000 deer are estimated to be lost each year. It’s no wonder hunters are beginning to speak up. Photo by Michal Martinek, Shutterstock

According to a recent predation study conducted in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, “wolves were a small factor” in the decline of the U.P. deer herd. The study concluded its cause is most likely a combination of weather, habitat availability and hunting. Another similar study done in New York State matched the U.P. study results. We have all heard that wolves target the weak, and studies have proven this. But how many of those deer may have died of other causes? Scientists from the University of New York conducted a 10-year study using radio collars and trail cameras to monitor deer throughout the western U.P. If the animals died, they would study the carcass to determine what killed it.

They found that almost half of the radio-collared fawns died within three months of birth, and wolves caused only 7 percent of those deaths. However, among the radio-collared does, whose survival is instrumental to population gains, wolves killed 8.6 percent of the breeding-aged doe population yearly. However, most of the does got killed during late winter and early spring, when northern deer are in their poorest health. By testing the dead deer’s bone marrow, scientists found that as many as half of the does were in a near-death state of starvation when attacked and killed by wolves. So, of course, some of these deer wouldn’t have survived the winter. However, it could be impossible to figure out what percentage that may be.

One thing that surprises me is the lack of concern over coyotes, whose population and range are immensely more extensive than the grey wolf. A recent population study indicated there were between 125,000-150,000 coyotes in Kansas alone! The coyote is considered an apex predator in most of the lower 48 states. The coyote sits at the top of the food chain in many states.

For most wildlife ecologists, reintroducing the grey wolf into the Yellowstone Ecosystem in 1995 was the crowning glory of ecological achievements. It didn’t take them long to begin naming the benefits the wolf brought to the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. The elk learned to fear the wolf and, in doing so, have changed where and how they feed. This change in feeding patterns gave a reprieve to traditional elk browse; the willows and aspens now had a chance to regrow near streams. Grizzly bears have benefitted from this pattern change because there are now more riverside berries for hungry bears.

Even streams got altered, causing water to flow into areas that didn’t have water in the past. In addition, wolves will not tolerate coyotes and out compete them for prey, so coyote populations drop when wolves are present. The drop in coyotes leads to a rise in small game numbers, particularly fox, rabbit, and ground-nesting bird species. It even continues. Look at it like the Ecologists do; they call this a “trophic cascade.”

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This trail camera photo composition was created using images of a whitetail doe and a mature Minnesota timber wolf traveling through the same exact location, standing in the same spot at different times. The overlay shows the size of the adult alpha predator. It’s estimated Minnesota holds more wolves than all other U.S. states other than Alaska. Photo by Craig Kavajecz

A recent finding in Wisconsin could have implications for decades on wolf populations and management decisions. This scientific paper was published on May 24 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and titled, Wolves Make Roadways Safer. Generating Large Economic Returns to Predator Conservation. The paper stated: “In Wisconsin, wolf presence reduced deer-vehicle losses by an average of $375,000 per county per year and by $10.9 million annually in aggregate across the 29 wolf counties.” After crunching numbers, researchers now say that a higher wolf presence translates into a 24 percent reduction in deer-vehicle collisions in Wisconsin’s wolf counties. But, more importantly, the economic savings from fewer car-deer accidents is 63 percent greater than that paid to farmers and ranchers for livestock predation. So, in layman’s terms, the economic value of wolves far outweighs the costs of the wolf ’s predation. In addition, it is now being considered to possibly use wolves for population control in disease-affected areas where CWD or Tick related diseases could spread.

No matter our stance on wolves, they are here to stay. If anything, they will continue to grow in population and expand their range. A plan to “re-wild” America was recently unveiled through the Wildlands Project. This project would return the unpopulated and largely unused parts of the U.S. to nature. This project would include reintroducing wolves into most of the Adirondack Mountain range, the Rockies, Black Hills, Sierra Nevada, and Cascade Mountain ranges. In addition, the entire states of North Dakota and Montana would be considered grey wolf territory.

As long as Ecologists call for more wolves, they will continue to credit the wolf for everything they can — from grizzly bears having full bellies to plant life and fauna re-growing in areas it hasn’t grown in years; to saving the car insurance industry millions of dollars a year. So, we went from the big bad wolf trying to eat Little Red Riding Hood to the mighty and great wolf that is now saving our wildlife ecology.

The biggest challenge for outdoors people will be finding the audience that will fight to keep wolf populations that balance hunting and preservation. We also need management that prevents their return to the Endangered Species List. There is room for the wolf in today’s hunting world. We may disagree with it, but it is today’s reality. I couldn’t imagine the world without wolves. The wild places would never be the same without that lonesome howl.

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