A few weeks ago Yellowstone National Park officials discovered the carcass of one of the park’s deadliest wolves, an aging male that scientists knew to be an aggressive bison hunter.
Wolf No. 495 died naturally, but his body bore bruises consistent with injuries inflicted in an encounter with large game, according to Dan MacNulty, an assistant professor of wildlife ecology at Utah State University.
The wounds found on No. 495 help explain MacNulty’s latest findings that wolves’ hunting success bears little correlation to the size of the hunting party beyond four wolves. Wolves hunt in groups because taking down large hoofed animals is not only challenging but dangerous.
But if the attack party exceeds four animals, the chance of success levels off, according to research MacNulty and colleagues published this week in the journal Behavioral Ecology.
Somewhere in the rolling tundra east of Deadhorse, a lone wolf hunts. The 100-pound male will take anything it can catch, or find – a ptarmigan, a darting tundra rodent, a fish, the scraps of a carcass, or, if lucky, a moose calf or caribou. Hunger is a common companion, but the wolf somehow survived when his mate probably died of it last winter.
That event may have triggered the lone wolf’s incredible summer journey from south of the Yukon River to the crumbling shores of the Beaufort Sea. The wolf has traveled about 1,500 miles in four months, according to biologist John Burch, who works for the National Park Service.
Burch has studied wolves and the things wolves eat since the mid-1990s at Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve and Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. Last November, he was part of a team that helicoptered to Copper Creek, a remote tributary of the clear-running Charley River. There, he tranquilized a healthy male wolf and fitted it with a satellite radio collar. The collar transmits GPS coordinates from the wolf every few days, which has allowed Burch to follow the wolf¹s trans-Alaska trek this summer.
Burch would have preferred that the wolf remain near Yukon-Charley, 2.5 million acres where the Yukon flows into Alaska. The wolf’s collar is expensive and would give useful information about one of a dozen wolf packs
that use the preserve as part of their home range. But the lone male is telling the biologists a different story about wolf behavior – what happens when a pack breaks up.
Ed Bangs has long been a lightning rod for the controversy around the return of wolves to the U.S. Northern Rockies. Based in Helena, Mont., he led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s wolf-recovery effort from 1988, when the region had only a few naturally occurring wolves, through the reintroduction of Canadian wolves in 1995 and ’96, until his retirement in June 2011. During those years, the number of wolves in the region increased to more than 1,700. A plethora of lawsuits, alarmist headlines and political maneuvers culminated with Congress removing most of the region’s wolves from the Endangered Species List (an action also being challenged by lawsuits) just as Bangs retired.
Throughout the wolf battles, people on all sides of the issue respected Bangs for his unusual frankness and good humor. HCN’s senior editor, Ray Ring, talked with the 60-year-old biologist on July 1 about his lifelong interest in wildlife and his reflections on wolves and human society in general.