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The Latest On Yellowstone's Wolves by Ilona Popper

The Chase: Yellowstone’s Lamar Canyon Wolf Pack Chases Elk
Gallery Photographers Capture Yellowstone Wolf Pack Behaviors

Chris Hoff's stunning photo "The Chase," one of the gallery's best sellers these days, captures a hunt by Yellowstone National Park's well-known Lamar Canyon pack. The photo encapsulates so much that is fascinating and surprising about wolf behavior. It also documents some of the most recent events in the history of wolf reintroduction.

Hoff's photo looks like a classic scenario: wolves are chasing elk. Most people assume the wolves will "win." Hoff explains in an info sheet the Gallery provides with the photo that, in this case, the wolves did bring down on of the elk. However, usually, wolves kill only 15% of the animals they target. How can apex predators like wolves have such a low success rate? Hoff's photo gives us a clue to the answer: the wolves are running after the elk.

Wolves are the smallest large carnivore in relation to their prey. Adult wolves average anywhere from 80-110 lbs. Very few individuals exceed 125 lbs. Prey like elk, on the other hand, generally weigh 800-1500 lbs. Wolves specialize in killing animals a great deal larger than themselves. Unlike the heavier cougar, which stalks or ambushes prey, wolves are "coursing" hunters; they generally rely on running to catch and kill food.

When wolves get a herd of elk running, it allows them to chose the prey that are least likely to injure the wolves during the kill. If an elk does stand its ground, wolves generally end the chase and even disappear.  Wolves are very adaptable. Packs that live in Yellowstone's interior, where elk leave every winter, have learned to use the heavy snows to help them kill 2000 lb bison.

Feisty Females

Hoff's photo depicts other representative wolf behaviors. For instance, wolves generally attack from behind. Because the elk cannot see the attacker well, they cannot use their sharp hooves and superior weight to strike down and kill wolves.

Another typical behavior: wolf hunts are often led by the alpha female and other top ranking females. In this photo, the alpha "06 Female" of the Lamar Canyon pack is in the lead. (Later "06" became radio-collared YNP wolf 832F.) Adult female wolves like 832F choose which animal to target in a hunt. The females and young adult wolves are fast enough to keep up with fleeing elk or deer. At the end of a hunt the heavier big males come in to help.

Wolves Hunting and Hunted

The lead wolf in Hoff's photo, the "06 Female" or 832F, became famous because she often took down so much of her prey solo.  For wolf watchers and tourists, seeing her lead a hunt was a familiar sight.

Yellowstone National Park has become the number one place in the world to see wolves. The Lamar Canyon pack and it's three adults 832F, 755M, and 754M were among the most watched wolves in the world. When wolves were delisted in 2009, wolf hunting became legal in the states surrounding Yellowstone Park: Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho. 

In autumn 2012, both the the lead wolf in the photo, 832F, and the last wolf in the line, 754M, were legally killed in the Wyoming wolf hunt. The legal killings inflamed the debate among those who want to see more trophy hunting of wolves and those who support and rely economically on the booming wildlife tourism industry or those who simply want wolves preserved. The debates about the best ways to manage wolves will likely continue.

Wolves and Ranching

Some argue wolf numbers need to be lowered to protect ranching interests. Although ranchers have good reasons to be vigilant about living with wolves, data shows that wolves generally kill few livestock. In Montana in 2012, total losses of cattle, sheep, and domestic dogs to wolves came to 125. More stock were killed by domestic dogs and coyotes. The worst killer of livestock is poison plants.

Healthy Elk, Healthy Wolves

Wolves evolved as runners and their prey evolved that way too. By culling the weakest members of the herd, wolves in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem have restored elk to their lower historic numbers. The herds are smaller, but full of stronger, healthier elk. The animals that survive winter and predators pass better genes to the next generation of elk. Without predators to keep them in check, ungulates, animals like elk, deer, moose, or bison, can eat through their food sources, and starve.

Wolves and other predators, on the other hand, are self-regulating. When elk numbers drop, wolves stop having offspring and their numbers drop.

Wolves Not Dangerous to Humans

Wolves inhabited Yellowstone National Park, North America, and most of the world, for centuries. As human populations grew, depleting wolves' natural prey like deer and elk, and as European and Asians turned to intensive livestock farming, there were more human-wolf conflicts. Starving wolves sometimes ate cows, sheep, or yaks.

People didn't understand how predators and prey balanced out their populations and myths began to develop about wolves. Starving wolves took to scavenging and feeding on the dead the Crusaders left behind on their battlefields. It seemed demonic, an outrage to the dead. European and eastern wolves became infected with rabies (a disease carried by domestic dogs) and behaved unnaturally, sometimes attacking people. (Wolves in Yellowstone do not yet carry rabies.)

Any wild animal can be dangerous and must be treated with respect. However, wolves are notably docile around people. Unlike
Agate Wolf 113M in Snow
grizzly bear and cougar, wolves run and hide from people when they can. If cornered, they may even curl up submissively. One indicator has been how few wolf attacks on people there have been worldwide. In Yellowstone, where wolf watchers may gather by the hundreds each day, no one has been mauled or killed by wolves.

Complex Social Animals

Photographer Mark Miller has been documenting Yellowstone wolves since reintroduction. In his photo, "Agate Wolf 113M in Snow,"  Miller shows the easy lope of wolf 113M founder of the Agate pack. 113M was one of the most successful breeders in Yellowstone's northern range, but he proved unusually flexible when trouble struck. He was badly injured and could not breed in 2008. His pack faced a year without pups. In this state of emergency 113M did not prevent his son from breeding with his mother--113M's mate. In fact 113M remained around and seemed to encourage the two to pair, flouting of the wolfish taboo against incest. His son was just as deferential as ever, not driving his father out of the pack. The next year 113M had died and the alpha female chose an unrelated wolf to breed with, ending the incestuous pairing.

Other Gallery Wolf Products

Yellowstone's Wolf Project has studied these fluctuations between wolves and prey and wolf behaviors for more than 18 years. One the Gallery's most interesting books is Decade of the Wolf by Douglas Smith, Head of Yellowstone Wolf Project. Smith writes of the early years of wolf reintroduction and showcases individual wolf personalities and stories from Yellowstone's wolf studies.

The Gallery offers several publications by Jim Halfpenny about Yellowstone wolves: Yellowstone Wolves: In the Wild, his 2013 Wolf Chart, listing current packs and members you might see in the park, and Charting Yellowstone's Wolves, a compilation of all the wolf charts he's produced since reintroduction.

Customer favorites at the Gallery are the gorgeous bowls, mugs, plates and other fine pottery by Kim and Thom Norby that depict wolves, as well as other beautiful local animals like elk, bear, eagles, moose, and horses. In addition. the gallery has so many wolf and wildlife themed books, pottery, pictures, photos, paintings, ornaments, jewelry and other crafts, that it's impossible to list them all.

If you want to see wolves for yourself, Yellowstone Gallery rents Wild Side's spotting scopes by the day or week. Most of all, we can give you pointers on how to see wolves in Yellowstone and share in your stories when you return from the field!

Ilona Popper has observed Yellowstone Park wolves for more than 10 years. Wolves figure in many of her articles and poems and she is working on a book about them.

For Info about Yellowstone Wolf Project and the Current Packs in the Park go to

Newsletter Archive:

Introducing C. Thomas Hoff, Photographer (Jun 2012)
A New Christmas Tradition (Nov 2011)
"Lookout Tower" and "Waiting For Mom" Two New Carl Brenders Wolf Prints! (Jan 2010)
It's Time for a WAKE UP CALL! (Sep 2009)
Introducing Tah Madsen, Yellowstone Artist (Jan 2009)
Happy New Year Everyone & Good Luck to Barack Obama on Inauguration Day (Dec 2008)
New Nancy Glazier Limited Edition Prints Released! (Apr 2008)
Yellowstone Winterkeepers - A Vanishing Species (Jan 2008)
Steven Fuller, Yellowstone Winterkeeper and Photographer Extraordinaire (Nov 2007)
Historical Yellow Buses Return to Yellowstone National Park's Original North Entrance at Gardiner, Montana (Apr 2007)
Squawking Raven News, Inaugural Edition (Dec 2006)

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