Wolves by Steve Volkening
There it was. ''John, there's a wolf,''
I whispered. Only 20 to 30 yards from our canoe,
a large black-phase adult wolf stood atop a
lichen-encrusted boulder at the entrance to the
Star Lake portage. He looked at us for a few
seconds and then jumped down into the ferns and
''Damm, its gone,'' I said, barely able to
speak. As he got his camera out of his dry bag
in the bow, John replied, ''no, he's still
there.'' John was right; as I kept the canoe
stable, just a few rods from shore, the wolf
re-appeared on a rocky ledge to the left of the
It was magnificent! It looked at us, took a
few more steps, and then just stood there and
stared at us. We stared back in amazement. This
close encounter probably lasted about 30
seconds, but time seemed to stop. The wolf
finally ambled out of sight and was gone.
John's long lens had broken earlier in our
trip and when the photos were developed, they
weren't as close up as we had hoped. Since I'm
an addicted bird
watcher, I always have binoculars at the
ready. The image of the wolf completely filled
my field of vision. It was a sight I will never
According to the International Wolf Center in
Ely, 98% of Eastern Timber Wolves are gray. That
is why their common name is Gray Wolf. (There is
also a critically-endangered Red Wolf, which
once roamed the Gulf states, but sadly now is
very rare.) Only 2% of wolves in northern
Minnesota/southern Ontario are black or white.
On top of that, we saw it at nearly high noon -
12:03 p.m. to be exact - making it all the more
unusual. My only other sighting of a wolf in a
natural setting occurred in 1999 when I caught a
very brief glance of one along the side of the
For several days before our encounter at the
Star Lake portage, we had seen wolf prints in
the mud along several of the more remote trails.
I know it's difficult to tell the difference
between the paw print of a wolf and a large dog.
On several previous trips, I had seen canine
prints and secretly hoped that they had been
left by a wolf, only to see an Irish Setter with
another party. But this time, I knew that these
had to be wolf prints. There were no other human
prints. Janice Matichuk, the Cache Bay ranger,
later told us that she thought we may have been
the first group through some of these portages
all summer (and we were there the week before
I had hoped that we would be able to see a
wolf and kept my eyes open every minute. The
fact that we were on a tandem trip and traveled
quietly increased our chances. Janice told us
that one other group reported seeing a black
wolf. The outfitter that had provided our launch
to Cache Bay said that several of their Quetico
groups had heard wolves howling at night.
Wolves once covered almost all of the world
north of the equator. They lived in a wide
variety of habitats - forests, prairies, tundra,
and grasslands. They were absent only in the
tropics and deserts. In North American, there
were 20 subspecies.
Native Americans considered Brother Wolf to
be a spiritual creature, which prayed to the
moon and could teach men much about survival.
Europeans had a very different attitude toward
wolves. They saw it as an evil creature to be
feared. They brought with them the Old World
legends of werewolves and vampires.
Wolves were hunted, trapped, and poisoned to
near extinction. The federal and state
governments paid a bounty for each wolf killed.
The state of Minnesota paid bounties for each
wolf killed up until 1964. By the early 1900's
wolves were nearly exterminated throughout its
normal range in the eastern US. The statistics
are shocking. It was eliminated from 95% of its
historical range in the US, 100% in Mexico, and
15% in Canada. Today, wolves are found only in
northeastern Minnesota, Isle Royale National
Park in Lake Superior, Alaska, Canada, and the
northern portions of Wisconsin, North Dakota,
Idaho, Washington, and Montana.
Canus Lupis, or the Eastern Timber Wolf, is
the largest member of the Canidae, or Canine
family. It looks somewhat like a large German
shepherd, but is more lanky and long-legged. Its
fur is a grizzled gray mixture of gray, white,
black and brown hairs. It has a long, bushy tail
that usually has a black tip.
Timber Wolves are 26-38 inches tall at the
shoulder and 4 - 6 feet long (tail included).
They weigh between 60-130 pounds, with the males
being larger and heavier than the females.
Wolf or Coyote?
Wolves are sometimes confused with coyotes.
However, they generally inhabit different areas.
Coyotes are extending their range and now
inhabit all of the Lower 48 states. They are
able to live close to urban areas. Wolves can be
found only in wilderness areas. Coyotes are
substantially smaller than wolves, and are only
3 - 4 feet long and weigh just 20-50 pounds.
Another good field sign to distinguish
between coyotes and wolves is how their tails
are held while traveling. Wolves hold their
tails horizontally and never hold their tail
aloft like a dog. Coyotes, on the other hand,
hold their tail down while jogging. Wolves also
have pointed and relatively short ears, while a
coyote's ears are more pointed and relatively
A wolf pack has a large home territory of
100-260 square miles, depending upon food
resources available. They travel this territory
at regular intervals along established trails of
deer, moose, and elk. Except for the migratory
caribou, wolves travel more often and for
greater distances than any other terrestrial
mammal. They can cover 45 miles in a day. The
only time a pack stops moving is for the birth
of pups, usually from April to July. When the
pups are old enough to move, the pack resumes
The territory of neighboring packs may sometimes
overlap slightly. Territorial borders are
clearly marked by urine and feces. Packs usually
manage to avoid each other.
Wolf packs range in size from 2 to 15, with
the average size of 4 to 7. Packs are usually
made up of family members and relatives. The
strongest (alpha) male is the leader. All the
members of the pack help care for the young,
although only the alpha male and the alpha
female will breed.
Mating takes place between February and
March. The litter may be from 5 to 14, but the
average is 7. The pups are born between April
and June in an underground den. They emerge
about one month later. When adults return from
the evening hunt, the pups howl and bite the
adult's noses to stimulate them to regurgitate
Wolves are great hunters and successful
predators. Even in the harsh northern winters,
they don't hibernate or put on excess fat to
survive. Instead, they rely on their remarkable
Wolves are famous as hunters of the deer
family. They feed on deer, moose, elk, caribou,
and mountain sheep. However, they also eat small
rodents, beavers, snowshoe hare, skunk, fish,
birds, snakes and lizards. Like other
carnivores, they also eat a variety of plants
and fruit to get vitamins and minerals. They
feast on various berries, grasses, flower tops,
mushrooms, and lichens.
Wolves and Moose
Wolves use different hunting methods on
different types of prey. They will follow a
caribou herd until they can spot a weak or sick
animal. Since mountain sheep can run up a steep
and icy cliff when threatened, wolves hunt for
them in surprise attacks from above.
A moose can weigh
ten times as much as a wolf. A healthy moose can
defend itself well with its massive antlers and
sharp hooves. If a moose stands its ground and
fights to defend itself, a pack will usually
move on to easier prey. Wolves prefer to make a
moose run so that it cannot kick. They then
bring it down by attacking it from behind.
Wolves usually hunt cooperatively. Since most
prey can outrun them, they don't use long
chases. If they can't capture their prey within
1000 yards, they usually give up. They prefer to
surprise or ambush their prey.
Symbiosis in Nature
Wolves frequently look up towards the sky for
signs of crow, ravens, or vultures, which might
be circling over a dead or injured animal. There
is a well-documented symbiotic relationship
between wolves and these birds. These carrion -
eating birds can spot food easily from above,
but they need a predator like the wolf to open
the carcass for them.
The tracks of a wolf are hard to distinguish
from a dog, since both have four toes with
nonretractable claws. Wolf tracks are usually
wider and larger than a similar-sized dog. The
foreprint is 4 - 5 inches long and the hindprint
is slightly smaller. Its normal walking stride
is 30 inches.
Not Man's Best Friend!
Historically, wolves have been severely
persecuted by humans. Because of this they tend
to be shy and avoid contact with people. There
has never been a documented case of a healthy,
wild wolf killing a person in North America.
There is a far greater chance of a person being
killed by lightening, a bee sting, or a car
collision with a deer or moose than of being
attacked by a wolf. Wolves have much more to
fear from us than we have to fear from them.
The largest concentration of wolves close to
the Boundary Waters area is at Algonquin
Provincial Park, located about four hours north
of Toronto. This park has 150-170 wolves. Half
of its 38 packs have territories which extend
beyond the boundaries of the park. Although
protected inside the park, Canada has no
Endangered Species Act. Wolves can be hunted at
any time. There was no limits or quotas on the
numbers on wolves taken. Each year, 35-40 wolves
who wander outside the protection of the park
Wolves in Minnesota have fared better.
Minnesota is the only one of the 48 contiguous
states where the wolf was never exterminated.
Probably because the Boundary Waters Canoe Area
Wilderness is so inaccessible, wolves in
northeastern Minnesota were never wiped out. The
wolf population never fell below about 650.
However, before settlers began their deliberate
policy of extermination, there were somewhere
between 4000 to 8000 wolves in Minnesota.
Not Endangered Any More?
The Eastern Timber Wolf was listed as
''endangered'' in Minnesota by the US Secretary
of the Interior in 1967. Yet, it was protected
from hunting only in Superior National Forest.
In 1974 it was listed as ''endangered'' under
the Endangered Species Act and given full
protection. Today, the population has shown a
remarkable comeback. There were 2450 wolves in
Minnesota in 1997, mostly in the northeastern
corner, and their numbers are growing by about
100 per year. The Minnesota State Department of
Natural Resources is working on a plan to ''delist''
or remove its ''endangered'' status.
The International Wolf Center in Ely recently
measured public attitudes towards wolves in
Minnesota. Seventy per cent of those surveyed
indicated that the wolf symbolized to them the
beauty and wonder of nature. A strong majority
indicated that there were morally opposed to the
harvesting of wolves for their fur. They also
believed that seeing or hearing a wolf in the
wild would be among the greatest experiences of
For us, it was. For two guys from the Chicago
area, the unexpected sight of a Timber Wolf at a
remote Quetico lake was an experience never to