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July 24, 2019

Jacob friede/lakeland times

North Lakeland Discovery Center (NLDC) naturalist Annie McDonnell holds a grey wolf pelt during the “Wolf Ecology 101” presentation last Friday as part of the NLDC’s Wonders of Wildlife series.
Jacob friede/lakeland times

North Lakeland Discovery Center (NLDC) naturalist Annie McDonnell holds a grey wolf pelt during the “Wolf Ecology 101” presentation last Friday as part of the NLDC’s Wonders of Wildlife series.
6/15/2019 7:30:00 AM
The mysterious ways of wolves
Wolf Ecology 101 held at Discovery Center
Jacob Friede
Of The Lakeland Times

Over the centuries humans have established a fascinating bond with dogs. The two species don't share a language, yet have an uncanny ability to accurately understand each other's moods, mannerisms, and movements. They coexist like family in all facets of life, offering mutual companionship. Yet, for as well understood as domestic canines are, the same cannot be said for their ancestors.

"Wolves tend to avoid humans and human development at all cost," said Annie McDonnell, a naturalist at the North Lakeland Discovery Center who gave a presentation on wolves and wolf ecology last Friday at the center.

Because these creatures strive to stay out of sight, a lot of questions surround them. McDonnell's presentation, part of the North Lakeland Discovery Center's Wonders of Wildlife series, was titled Wolf Ecology 101, and it offered great insight into the mysterious lives of wolves and revealed a species every bit as impressive as their domestic relatives people have so grown to love.

A wolf's most obvious, imposing characteristic is its size.

"These are tall dogs. They stand tall and have long legs," McDonnell said

Wolves, she said, can range between four-and-a-half and six-and-a-half feet in length. They can also be two-and-a-half to almost three feet tall at the shoulders, and they're hefty. The average male grey wolf is 72 pounds and the average female is 62 pounds.

That kind of size produces impressive paws and jaws.

A wolf paw is three-and-a-half inches wide and four-and-a-half inches long, and with them, McDonnell explained, they are able to distribute their weight over muck and deep snow, which enables them to track prey through tricky terrain.

This is helpful because 55 percent of a wolf's diet is deer. An average adult wolf will eat 20 deer a year. Their diet also includes beaver, rabbit, and squirrel, though no matter what's on the menu, wolves have quite a bite to take care of business.

"They have the strongest jaws of any land animal in North America," McDonnell said. "They can actually crush the bone."

She further explained wolves have a bite force of 500-700 pounds of force per square inch. In comparison, humans have a bite force of 150 pounds.

With such brutal strength, the only thing more dangerous or powerful than a wolf on a Midwestern landscape is a pack of them, and unfortunately for the animals they hunt, that's just how they roll.

Pack life

A wolf pack is led by an alpha male. There is also an alpha female, and the rest are subordinates. The alpha male chooses the den sight, leads the hunts, establishes territory, and is the only one to breed. The subordinates take care and feed the young wolves of the pack. Wolves are born blind and deaf and altogether helpless, though they grow up fast, putting on 3 pounds a week. At 10 months the young start hunting as well.

McDonnell said there can be up to 10 wolves in a pack and there is often internal drama and challenges for control.

"There's constant change within a pack and pack life," she said.

Sometimes an alpha male will lose his status in a challenge, and sometimes subordinates will break off and form there own pack.

But no matter how the hierarchy shakes up, a pack of wolves needs room to roam.

'Habitat generalists'

The range a specific pack rules over is, at minimum, 20 square miles, depending on pack size and how much food is available. The effect that wolves, as apex predators at the top of the food chain, have upon an area's ecosystem is substantial.

For example, McDonnell explained how wolves impact trout streams by eating the beaver and elk which eat the willow and aspen trees that grow along stream banks. With less beavers and elk, there are more trees and shade and cooler, higher quality trout streams.

Historically, wolves inhabited most of the United States. The only area not in their historic range was the southeastern part of the country.

However, by 1865, McDonnell explained, wolves were systematically eradicated - through a bounty system - from much of the country's landscape due to the negative impact they were having on settler's livestock.

Before settlement there were 3,000-5,000 wolves in Wisconsin. By 1960 they were gone. But the Endangered Species Act in 1974 gave the few remaining wolves that lived on the arrowhead peninsula of Minnesota federal protection. Some of those wolves migrated over and began naturally re-colonizing in Wisconsin in 1980. By 1999 there were 205 wolves in the state. By 2012, the year in which the grey wolf was taken off the federal endangered species list, there were over 700. In 2014 a court ruling put them back on the endangered species list and now there are currently around 950 wolves in the state. They have been seen as far south as Kenosha, but the majority of the packs are up north, McDonnell said.

Nationally, wolves inhabit the Pacific Northwest, the Rocky Mountains, and northern parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, as well as small areas of Arizona and New Mexico. But they are also found all across the earth.

"There's 37 different sub species of the grey wolf," McDonnell said, citing the Great Plains wolf, the eastern timber wolf, the arctic wolf, the McKenzie Valley wolf, the Mexican wolf, the Indian wolf, the Arabian wolf, and the tundra wolf as examples, as well as the domestic dog.

"Wolves over the last 1.8 million years that they've been on the landscape have spread out globally," McDonnell said. "They've been able to live in most habitats, most environments. That's what we call habitat generalists. They don't require one specific thing to rely on to be able to survive. As long as they can find food they can pretty much live there."

Humans have had a similar evolution, therefore it's inevitable the two species have crossed paths, and whenever two such powerful cultures collide there will be controversy. However, with knowledge and an understanding of a wolf's place on this planet, a respected coexistence with this remarkable animal can overshadow any conflict.

Jacob Friede may be reached at or

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