This blog is all about understanding wolves in the northwest U.S. and to show ways in which ranchers can coexist with wolves and not lose any livestock or dogs. And likewise in order to understand how to prevent encounters with wolves their behavior needs to be understood. Specifically their social behavior and hunting/feeding behaviors will be explained in this section.
In order to understand how wolves hunt and feed their social behavior must be first understood. Wolves are highly social animals that live in family groups called packs. Now the term “pack,” while it is the correct terminology used by biologists and researchers, it also has a negative connotation to most people who do not care for wolves to begin with. People often associate “pack” with “gang” which is a false way of looking at the dynamics of a group of wolves. So in order to avoid that negative association with wolves, in this blog a group of wolves will typically be referred to as a “family group.”
Now a typical family group contains the alpha male and female who are the breeding pair of the family. They are the ones that lead the group and are the only ones who will mate and produce pups. This mated pair, assuming neither dies, will remain mates for life. Next there are the betas of the group which are the second highest ranked individuals and will take on the role of alpha should something happen to one of them and they also act as enforcers in larger groups of 20 or more individuals. Then there are the mid-ranking wolves that are generally more submissive and mostly help with hunting and rearing of the pups. Finally there is the omega. The omega is the lowest ranking wolf of a group, other members of the group will often take frustrations out on him or her and the omega is always the last to feed on a kill. However the omega has an important role by diffusing tension and fights, often acting playfully.
While all of these members have their own roles in the hierarchy, they all help with hunting down prey, caring for the pups, and caring for anyone sick or injured. What many do not know is that if a wolf were to be hurt during a hunt and suffer a broken leg or jaw, the rest of the pack will care for the individual and bring them food. The tight knit family groups of wolves are shockingly similar to how human families and relationships are. Think of your extended family. You always have a couple of people in the household or family that are at the head and more often than not make the calls. Then you have the children who can be rowdy and playful, sometimes to the point of upsetting the parent which leads to discipline. Then you have those moments of care and concern for a child who becomes ill or a relative who gets injured. You of course care for them until they are healthy, likewise when there’s a newborn everyone in the house pitches in to care for them. In many ways both human and wolf families are similar.
With that said, a great deal of their behavior is in how they hunt and feed as a group. When hunting the group focuses on the young, sick, or weak in a herd. By doing this they increase their odds of actually catching something, as most hunts usually end in failure. However while this not only conserves their energy to try and catch the prey species, this also benefits the herd and population as a whole. This is because there would in turn be more resources of the healthy members of the herd and therefore increase the overall strength and health of the population. Now something important to keep in mind though is that a wolf cannot hunt down large prey without its family group. There are many different strategies that they will utilize and they all vary upon the group, since wolves will teach their young wolves how to hunt properly. When they are born they have the basic instinct of hunting, and it is expressed through play with the litter. However it is the adults who guide them.
When it comes to how wolves feed their place within the family determines who eats when and who gets what part. Those who eat first are those at the top and after they have their fill then the rest may eat. The alphas will typically get the most nourishment rich parts. However aside from the basic pecking order, their treatment of a kill is quite complex. If a group does not eat all of a kill in one sitting they will leave and often return again until it is gone. This happens more so during the winter as they often go two or three days without eating. Most often when those kills are left unattended other wildlife will scavenge them such as bears, raptors, foxes, and an assortment of about 20 other species. Other wolves will often take advantage of another’s kill as wolves themselves can also be scavengers.