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Field Journal: Gray Wolves of Yellowstone


Yellow Dave Wednesday, October 16, 1996

What wolves hunt
Reported by Doug Smith

Nobody is neutral about wolves. People either hate them or love them. There is no in-between. This makes having wolves around difficult. Some people think wolves are the most wonderful animal alive; others believe them to be evil. I think these views stem from the fact that wolves must kill to live.

In Yellowstone I have been trying to keep track of what animals the wolves kill. Mostly these have been elk, but deer, moose, an antelope, and a mountain goat have also been killed. Almost all of the elk that the wolves have killed are either very old or very young. What this means is that wolves are attacking the easiest animals to kill. They do not try to kill the healthiest elk because it is too hard. A wolf could get hurt trying to kill a healthy elk, which would kick out with its sharp hooves. In short, wolves are not random hunters, but very selective ones. It is not true that wolves kill anything they want.

To find out what wolves kill, I have to fly in the airplane and see the wolves. The radio-collars that we put on them won't do all the work for us this time. We have to find the wolves and observe what they are eating. Later we usually hike in to see what animal the wolves killed, how old it was, and what condition it was in. I have done this hundreds of times. In fact, many summers in college I worked on a wolf study. The main job I had was to hike into wolf kills to learn about what the wolves were eating. This has been one of the most enjoyable aspects of my work because I enjoy getting outside and hiking. Sometimes when I do this I see wolves and other kinds of wildlife. It's one of the reasons I chose to become a biologist.

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