There are often many myths and misconceptions surrounding wildlife- especially wildlife that is perceived to be dangerous. However, many of these myths are just that- myths or untrue ideas that are widely shared and believed by many. One particularly “ferocious” animal that has some myths attached to it is the wolf. In this article, we’ll go over some of the more common myths about wolves you may have heard and do our best to debunk them.
About the wolf and its range
Wolves are widely distributed throughout the world and can be found in North America, Europe, Asia and Africa. There are only a handful of wolf species, however there are over 25 different subspecies of wolves in the world.
Wolves fall into the genus Canis, which also includes coyotes, jackals, and even domestic dogs. This means that our own pets are very closely related to the same wolves that we see on nature documentaries and read about in natural history books!
Wolves in the United States
In the United States, we have the Gray wolf and the Red wolf- however Red wolf populations are in steep decline and there are only under 20 of them in the wild left. There are conservation efforts to reintroduce them to parts of their distribution in North Carolina and Tennessee.
Gray wolves in the United States
In North America, gray wolves are more than their relatives the red wolf, however they are still considered endangered and their populations warrant conservation support.
Gray wolves used to have a distribution that covered nearly two thirds of the United States, however now there are only populations found in parts of Alaska, Michigan, Wisconsin, Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Wyoming.
7 common myths about wolves
The following 7 items are common myths about wolves, here we tell you why these things aren’t true.
1 Wolves are highly dangerous to people
Wolves are wild animals and apex predators that certainly have the ability to harm humans. The reality is though, that wolves are rarely seen by people and do their best to avoid them. Over the past 100 years, there have only been three deadly attacks by wild wolves in the United States.
So while Wolves are capable of hurting people, the numbers do not support the idea that wolves are dangerous to people. Far more people die from domestic dog attacks each year.
2 Wolves kill large numbers of cattle and livestock
One common misconception about wolves is that they negatively impact the livelihood of ranchers and farmers that raise cattle and livestock by frequently preying upon them.
Wolves do occasionally take the odd cow or bull, however this is a rarity. Wolves account for less than 1% of cattle deaths by predators. Far more cattle are lost to disease, birthing problems, bad weather, and other natural causes.
While the economic impacts of losing livestock to predators such as wolves is a cause for concern, the hatred that some people have for wolves because of their impact on the ranching industry is misplaced.
Wolves hardly make a dent in the number of cattle killed each year. Besides, methods such as the use of guard dogs, electric fencing, and alarms and bright lighting has shown to be effective in protecting livestock.
3 Wolves hurt elk and deer populations, eliminating hunting seasons
Wolves are natural predators of deer and elk, and do have an impact on their populations. However, there are not currently enough wolves in the United States to lower elk and deer populations to the point where it would eliminate hunting seasons for them.
Additionally, in an effort to conserve energy, wolves will go after only the slowest and weakest animals- which are often old, sick, or injured. If wolves go after sick individuals, like those with chronic wasting disease, it can actually help elk and deer populations by slowing down the spread of diseases.
4 Wolves hunt for sport
Hunting takes an incredible amount of energy and can be risky for any animal. It is not advantageous for wolves to hunt for any other reason than fulfilling their biological need to eat. Even though wolves have extremely long endurance and can keep moving for very long periods at a time, they wouldn’t waste energy for surplus killing.
Often times, many hunts or chases for prey end up being unsuccessful. Because of this, wolves don’t have the energy to waste hunting only for sport or fun.
In the wild, having the energy to remain aware, alert and to keep moving is essential for survival so it would do more harm than good for wolves to hunt solely for sport.
5 The strongest male is always the leader of the pack
It is widely believed that wolves organize their packs based on a strict, social hierarchy with the most dominant and strongest male being “in charge”. People have suggested that when a male challenges the current alpha male of the pack and wins, this new challenger becomes the pack leader. However, within the complex pack hierarchy there are various levels of power.
This myth of the alpha male and hierarchies in wolf packs is from the 1940’s from when a researcher recorded his observations on a group of captive wolves. While captive wolves did appear to form social ranks based on dominance, this pattern does not occur in the wild.
Instead, wolf packs are most typically made up of families where the parents are in charge over their pups. This is not atypical in the animal world with parents making the rules for their young, and even the human world!
As the pups grow up, they will eventually break off from their familial pack and join up with other wolves to mate and start packs of their own.
6 Wolves howl at the moon
Wolves are known to howl at night, but there is no data that supports that they howl at the moon or in response to lunar cycles. Howling is one way that wolves communicate with each other.
Wolves may howl to let their pack or family members know where they are, or they may howl to let others outside of their pack know that they are entering their territory.
7 Wolf populations are doing fine
Historically, there were Gray wolves distributed throughout almost the entire United States. Today, this is not the case, with wolves now only occupying 15% of their historic range.
Alaska supports a healthy population of wolves, but in the lower continental US, there are only approximately 7,500 wolves left. Despite these troubling numbers, there are states that are passing legislation that would allow the culling of up to 80% of their wolf populations. This means that gray wolf populations are not out of the clear.
Wolves tend to captivate a lot of interest- they are strong, fierce, and somewhat mysterious. They are incredible and important parts of the ecosystems they occupy.
A lot of what is believed about wolves is not actually true, as outlined above. Debunking some of these myths can actually help conserve and protect them.