Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Gray Wolf


The Great Gray Wolf —

Mighty Hunter of the Wilds

Laurie York Erskine


Condensed from Frontiers: A Magazine of' Natural History {December, '50), copyright 1950 by The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, 19th St. & The Parkway, Philadelphia 3, Pa.

The gray wolf has the greatest range of any wild animal in the world. In spite of every effort to exterminate him he persists in most of Canada and Alaska in vast areas of Asia, in Eastern Europe and in at least 14 of our states.

He is the most efficient big-game hunter of all four-footed beasts. Some of the big cats are faster and stronger, but no other animal hunts in such uncanny cooperation with his fellows, or is so sure of success. This has not only gained for him a reputation for supernatural cunning but it has also earned for him the undying enmity of man.

In the early days of cattle ranching many small stockmen were wiped out by wolves. Certain wolves became famous. The Aguila wolf of southern Arizona averaged one calf every fourth night for eight years, and sometimes he wantonly slew half a hundred sheep in a single night. The Custer wolf in the Black Hills destroyed $25,000 worth of stock in seven years; old Three Toes of South Dakota slew $50,000 worth before he was captured in 1925, after being hunted for 13 years.

We call him the gray wolf, but his coat is often a tawny brown or red. Off-color wolves can be easily mistaken for dogs. Once in Ontario I saw three animals 100 yards away; one was gray, the others were brown, and they stood gazing at me with such friendly curiosity that I took them for Indian sled dogs. But when I stepped toward them they moved off into the woods, and I'll never forget the chill that ran up my spine when I recognized the unmistakable lope of the wolf.

The wolf is slower than many of his victims but he makes up for this by his endurance. He'll keep up a steady lope of 15 to 25 miles an hour all night if need be, in order to give his quarry no rest.

An average gray wolf is five and a half feet from nose to tail tip, stands 32 inches high and weighs 80 pounds. Seven-foot, 175-pound wolves have been killed. Stanley P. Young, veteran biologist of the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service who, with Dr. Edwin Goldman, has collected almost everything that is known about the animal in their book, The Wolves of North America, reports that in Alaska he saw wolfskins eight feet long.

At two or three years of age the wolf finds a lifetime mate. The young are generally born in the late spring. The parents prepare for them by making four or five dens in high places, with a view of all approaches so that mother wolf always has other safe refuges for her little ones if the birth den must be abandoned.

The litter of from seven to 14 whelps is nursed for about two months, during which the male hunts alone, dragging part of his kill home for his mate. As soon as the young are weaned the mother helps with the hunting, for the whelps are then hungry for meat. If the parents make a kill far away they gorge themselves with meat and disgorge it again at the den entrance for the whelps. In the daytime the male wolf lies down on some high place overlooking the den where he can warn his family of danger. If a man approaches, he may show himself to divert the enemy from his family. When the young ones are three months old the family lives in the open, sometimes roaming a territory of 200 square miles.

Moving always counterclockwise, the wolf patrols his hunting route constantly. He knows every hiding place and lookout, every spot where he can blend his color with the landscape and melt from sight. Along this route the parents teach their young to hunt. A strange wolf enters the area at its peril.

Since the young often stay with their parents until two or three years old, a family may consist of from five to eight full-grown wolves and a litter of whelps. This is the legendary wolf pack. It seldom includes wolves of more than one family, though several families occasionally run together for brief periods.

Few wild-animal families are more devoted. At least one member is always on watch to warn the others of danger. They often risk their lives to protect one another. Once in the wilds of British Columbia I found myself watched by a wolf crouching on a hill near my camp. When I reached for my rifle the animal dashed for cover. As I fired, a second wolf ran openly across the hill, yelping loudly — apparently trying to save his mate by diverting my gunfire to himself.

Wolves will take on any odds to protect their young. Stanley Young tells of four grizzly bears that came too close to a wolf den in which there were whelps, and were rushed by the four grown wolves of the family. Forest rangers watched the battle through binoculars for three hours, until four badly slashed bears limped defeated from the field.

Wolves are immensely strong. At the mouth of a den in New Mexico I found the remains of a yearling calf; the head and hindquarters were missing, but the wolf had dragged the rest of the carcass two miles from the nearest grazing land over ridges and through tangled brush that my companion and I had found hard going.

A wolf's long curved fangs are sharp as steel and he can sever the spine of a calf or break a deer's leg with- one bite. Traps have often proved unable to hold him. Few dogs can survive a fight with a wolf.

Much of the wolf's diet is made up of rabbits, mice, gophers and birds, but he prefers big game, cattle or sheep. In attacking sheep and cattle he is seemingly crazed by their stupidity and defenselessness and slaughters them indiscriminately, killing far more than he needs for food. But when hunting wild game he is a sportsman — and no more cruel than nature is.

Led generally by a she-wolf, a pack scouts for prey, and when the deer, elk, caribou or moose is found, one or two wolves will approach the animal from downwind until it is started up. Then the long chase begins. One wolf will follow directly behind the quarry; others take strategic positions and head it off so that it runs in a circle, until the quarry tires. Then the pack brings it down by tearing at its throat and hindquarters.

The cooperation of a hunting wolf pack is amazing. They seem to have a system of communication and take their positions like a well-trained team. They will herd a quarry to the edge of a cliff and run it over, or corner it in a steep ravine. In winter they run a deer onto ice, where it has no foothold. In summer they cover both banks of a stream and keep the deer swimming until it is exhausted. Bull moose, elk and caribou, however, often kill the attacker with their antlers or hoofs.

Man is the only animal the wolf fears. Today he will come close to a man's camp only in the Far North, where there are thousands of wolves that have never known man's scent.

Stories of human beings killed by wolves have little foundation in fact. Perhaps in Europe in the old days, when wolves roved near every village, some such cases may have occurred, but all who know the gray wolf of North America agree that he is no man-killer. The Canadian Wildlife Service knows of only one authentic instance of an unprovoked attack on a human being. Even a trapped wolf will seldom fight his captor, but will cringe away in fear.

The wolf has sharp eyesight, keen smell and good hearing. Hunters in prairie country have declared that wolves learn the range of a rifle and stay safely beyond it. Men who have set trap guns have found the trigger cords cut by wolves that have stolen the bait.

In outwitting this cunning opponent, expert wolf hunters have succeeded best by taking advantage of his two most dependable habits. His appetite for carrion makes him vulnerable to poisoned bait. In the first great campaign to wipe him out from the cattle ranges, professional hunters killed many thousands by poisoning carcasses with strychnine. In time the wolf learned to avoid such bait.

The wolf's second vulnerable habit is one which he shares with the dog. Along his hunting route he has his visiting posts, the equivalent of a dog's favorite tree or hydrant. The trapper who can find these posts and conceals his trap close to them usually gets results if the trap has the scent of a strange wolf. Smelling it, a wolf scratches up the area and strikes the trap.

Hunters have tried to rear captured wolf pups with varying degrees of success. Many Indian trappers in the North use half-breed wolf dogs for their sleds, but these beasts can seldom be controlled by anyone except their master.

The famous Joe Laflamme, a gigantic, bearded trapper of northern Ontario, lost all but two of his dogs in a distemper epidemic in 1923, and in desperation he made up a complete team with wolves captured in his traps. I've seen him put that team into harness. He'd lure each wolf with food into a small pen, and kneeling before it while it snarled and cringed he'd take a strangle hold around its neck with one arm and slip on a muzzle. Dragging the animal by a steel chain to the sled, he'd snap on the harness. After all his team was hitched up he'd whisk off the muzzles. "Wid de muzzle on," he explained, "dey do not pull!" Without it they pulled magnificently, but with their heads down and tails between their legs — cringing wild things shackled in fear to a task they despised.

Thousands of years ago, when the first dog wagged his way into the cave man's heart, the wolf remained true to the wilderness — and he has never changed his mind. No lure of care or comfort will ever tame him, and he will outtrick man's every effort to exterminate him. Indeed, if naturalists have their way, we shall always preserve him in the remoter regions where he can do no harm to man. There he will help maintain nature's control of the wildlife population, and remain the proud, defiant dog which refuses to wear man's collar.

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.