The Wisdom of Wolves: A Reason for Hope
As the reader will discover, the wolves—given just a fragment of chance and space—wove a story while we, with our supposedly vast powers of imagination, did well to just sit back and watch and learn.
–Rick Bass, Preface to the Mariner Books edition of The Ninemile Wolves (2003)
This post is a final analysis of the Haliburton Wolf situation. Before I begin, I’ll refresh your memory and introduce new readers to the most recent Haliburton Sanctuary Wolf pack: As of December 2012, this captive wild pack was made up of the alpha couple, Haida and Granite, and their offspring from 2011 and 2012. The 2011 pups (The “L’s”) consisted of females— Leila** and Luna; and males – Logan and Lonestar. The three younger pups, born in April 2012, are females.
On New Year’s Eve (Dec 31, 2012), vandals cut through the fences of the sanctuary. Haida, Granite, Lonestar, and Logan left the enclosure. Within 24 hours Granite and Logan were shot by poachers. Logan’s body was never recovered. Granite died two weeks later under the care of a veterinarian. Efforts to recapture Haida and Lonestar have failed. To date, they are still loose and the question of their ability to survive in the wild remains.
As I mentioned in my last post about this situation, I want to temporarily put aside the illegality of the vandalism and the emotional response to what happened. I also want to put aside the question of whether these wolves should have been bred and kept captivity in the first place. Instead, I want to look ahead and take a close look at the biology of wolves and what it can tell us about Haida and Lonestar’s chances of survival.
About Haida and Lonestar
Haida and Lonestar and their family were born and raised in a contained but natural environment. They were exposed to ordinary weather conditions and seasonal cycles. They engaged in natural pack dynamics including establishing (or losing) dominance and breeding and raising young. They lived on a diet very similar to that of their local wild counterparts – primarily beaver and deer.
They have an unusual relationship with humans – something between purely wild wolves and zoo animals. They keep their distance and generally avoid contact but are not typically alarmed or threatened by human presence. They associate at least some human activity with food delivery and are not hesitant to approach humans delivering the food.
Food has always been a dependable resource for Haida and Lonestar. They have never had to travel great distances to find food have never suffered from excessive hunger or starvation. With the exception of small animals that found their way into the enclosure, they have never hunted and they have never worked together as a pack to bring down large game.
Except possibly through the fence, they have had no experience with other wolves. They have never met a wolf that is a stranger to them, had to look for mates or defend themselves or their territories against rival packs.
So given this background, and compared to wolves born in the wild, how equipped are Haida and Lonestar to survive in the wild?
There is no doubt that biggest danger to these wolves is humans – hunters, poachers, traps, poison, and vehicles.
One third of all documented mortality among wolves east of the central Rockies in Canada was related to roads. (Mech p. 301)
Roads are associated with vehicle strikes, an increase in hunting takes, and poaching. Hunting is illegal within the Haliburton Forest but, as evidenced by the fates of Granite and Logan, any animal that approaches a side road or highway is at risk of being shot.
But these statistics apply to all wolves. Are Haida and Lonestar in any more danger than their wild counterparts? They are if their behavior brings them closer to humans, habitation, and roadways than a normal wild wolf. So let’s look at what might affect their behavior.
The alpha male was observed at least on one occasion on the local landfill. That is not what I consider a life in the “wild” and “free”, not even considering health aspects. The two males, for most of the winter also fed on bait, which we kept outside the Wolf Centre in order to keep them around and close by. (Peter Schleifenbaum )
Food and the ability to hunt is the first thing people think of when they worry about the loose wolves. Can they hunt? How will they know where to find food? Will they approach humans in hopes of being fed?
While they did catch a turkey in February, there is no evidence that the loose wolves are hunting substantial prey. It would seem that a wolf that has not learned to hunt would be extremely vulnerable. Things that are easy to catch and kill (or eat as-is) are things that would bring them into contact with humans — pets, small livestock and poultry, garbage, road kill, food carried by campers and hikers, the remains of hunter-kills, and animals already in traps.
But is this an accurate portrayal? What does evidence tell us about wolves released from captivity? The answer surprised me. It turns out that captive-raised wolves with no hunting experience very quickly take up hunting. In one case captive-reared Mexican wolves (Canis lupus baileyi) reintroduced into Arizona began killing elk within several weeks.
The wolves translocated from Canada to Yellowstone began killing elk within days after their release, despite no tradition of hunting in the area. (Mech p 139)
And then there is the famous case of the first generation of Ninemile wolves, born in April of 1990 in the Ninemile Valley of Montana. At five months old the six pups became orphans, their mother killed by poachers in June and her mate hit by a car in September, before he had time to teach the pups to hunt.
Because the wolves were the first known pair to den outside Glacier National Park in 60 years, wildlife officials stepped in to feed the pups. They didn’t remove them from the wild, but began leaving deer carcasses for them – at first cutting them open because the pups’ teeth weren’t strong enough to break through the deer hide.
Little was known then about the effects of artificially feeding wild pups. Officials were fearful that any human contact or even scent on the carcasses would ruin them as predators, so they took every precaution to prevent the pups from knowing where their food came from.
And then, in December, it happened. With no training from adult wolves, the pups killed a deer:
Jimenez was waving the deer leg all around. “He was just beside himself… All he kept saying, over and over, was, ‘They did it just like wolves do it. They did it just like wolves do it.’ He was so afraid he was going to teach them something human..” (Bass p. 74)
Of course, this doesn’t mean that the captive-raised wolves (or uneducated pups) won’t start with the easy-pickings, but wild wolves do that as well. Wolves are well-known to scavenge garbage dumps. Some Mediterranean wolf populations live almost exclusively on garbage and there is some evidence that modern dogs evolved from wolves that shared our leavings.
Wolves are also known to eat road kill and prey on house pets—especially dogs. In fact, wolves are considered “generalist carnivores” – eating any meat that is available to them. So the fact that Haida was spotted at the dump may not be a reflection of his inability to cope in the wild. He’s simply doing what any wolf would do – following his nose to the closest meal.
The Wolf Pack as Hunters
There were six Ninemile pups, so they were able to take down a deer as pack. As far as we know, Haida and Lonestar have no pack. Will that be an issue when it comes to hunting? In the summer, wild wolves are able to meet their dietary needs by hunting alone or in small groups. But winter is another story. Even well-fed wild wolves who are skilled hunters lose a substantial portion of their body fat in the winter and even eat into their last fat reserves: bone marrow fat.
Of forty-two wolves taken by trappers and hunters during the winter in Ontario, 17% had used most of their marrow fat and another 12% had begun marrow fat depletion. (Mech, p 117)
Peter Schleifenbaum rightfully points out that this past winter wasn’t the test. Haida and Lonestar were fed right up to mid-February. Conceivably, the sanctuary could continue to feed them, but if they leave the area, next winter will be their real test. In winter, wolves tend to hunt larger game – in Ontario, moose and deer – prey that normally requires a pack to take down.
This begs two questions. The first is, is killing large game essential for survival? Adapted to a feast-or-famine diet, wolves are able to survive remarkably well in times when large prey is scarce. Wolves in Isle Royale, for instance, have been observed going three weeks without a moose kill. In between kills they survived by scavenging old prey carcasses and catching small animals. In addition, wolves very quickly gain back their lost weight when food becomes available.
Another point is that wolf packs seldom remain on a kill for more than a single day. Should a resident pack kill a deer, the remains of their kill would be available to other scavengers. Some coyotes, for instance, are known to follow a day or two behind wolf packs to scavenge their leavings. Haida and Lonestar could do the same.
Another question to ask might be: What’s the largest prey a single or pair of wolves could take down? Again, the evidence is surprising. There are many documented instances where single wolves have killed large prey, including moose, bison, and muskoxen. Logic dictates that two wolves would be more efficient and effective than a single wolf, and that holds true. But interestingly, after that, more is not necessarily better. Youngsters and elderly pack members do not contribute a great deal to hunting and may even confuse or interfere with an effective hunt.
..packs kill less food per wolf than do pairs, and of all pack sizes, pairs are the most efficient per wolf.. (Mech p 121)
So in terms of hunting and taking prey, Haida and Lonestar might be just fine, especially if they work together.
Wolf Pack Tradition
It seems like there might be another advantage to being in a pack. An experienced pack of wolves knows the trails, water sources, and boundaries of their range; they know where to den and the most promising locations of food. They understand the movement patterns and behavior of their prey and know how to take advantage of weather conditions, snow-cover, gullies, thick brush, and uneven terrain in order to outsmart large game. Presumably all of this tradition is contained in the pack, young members learning from their elders.
But wolf biologists point out that packs are more dynamic than we used to assume. With animals leaving and joining the pack from year to year, beyond teaching pups, it would be hard to establish or preserve any pack-knowledge in such a variable group.
..hunting traditions are far from critical to wolf functioning under most conditions. (Mech 139)
It is more likely that there is an inherent flexibility in wolves that allows them to quickly adapt to new areas, prey species and behavior, and other novel conditions. This capability will work well for Haida and Lonestar as they explore new areas.
A Pack of One’s Own
The classic picture of a wolf pack is that of an alpha couple, their siblings and offspring, and maybe a few non-breeding elders. New members are born into the pack. Alpha wolves get overthrown by young upstarts and drop in status, eventually to die as low-ranking members of the pack. A pack is a closed system and new members from the outside are not welcome. If that is the case, then Haida and Lonestar are destined to be outsiders for the rest of their lives.
But while that image is somewhat correct, the dynamics of how packs ebb and flow are not taken into account. In a natural setting, most wolves do not remain in the pack in which they were born. Both males and females will leave the pack, especially if they don’t have breeding status. Some will remain nearby and others may travel great distances before settling into a new area. In the winter, these dispersed wolves comprise 10-15% of the population.
..each wolf pack can be viewed as a ‘dispersal pump’ that converts prey into young wolves and spews them far and wide over the landscape. (Mech p. 11)
Wolves may disperse at any age between about 5 months and 5 years. However, the most common age for dispersal is 11-24 months – about the time of sexual maturity. If Haida’s pack had remained intact and was a normal wild pack, chances are he and Granite would have remained with the 2012 pups and the 2011 pups, including Lonestar, would have begun exploring independently.
Let’s assume that Lonestar is following the natural course of a young wolf. What would happen next? In order to thrive, he would need three things: a mate, food resources, and an exclusive area. There are several ways he could do this. Overthrowing another male wolf would work, but that’s a risky proposition, especially for a yearling. Haida might have better luck in that regard.
Another option is to join a pack (see “Adoption” below) and then steal away a mate. That solves the mate problem but not the territory problem. So instead, Lonestar and Haida might opt to do what most unattached wolves do: Join the singles scene that naturally forms on the edges of territories. From here it would be short work to find a mate. Some researchers have observed lone wolves finding mates within days of reaching such an area. Within a regional population, most wolves will find a mate within a month of leaving the pack.
After finding a mate, wolves are notoriously successful at setting up housekeeping. Most will carve out a territory and breed within the year. In areas where wolves are hunted, new wolves take over the territories of killed wolves almost immediately.
Another way lone wolves make due is by joining a new pack. Most packs act aggressively towards newcomers, however, “adoption” or acceptance of a new wolf into the pack does occur. Adoptions may last days or go on for years. A very rough estimate is that 10-20% of wolves are adoptees at any given time. However, not every wolf is a candidate for adoption. Most adoptees are male and most of those are 1-3 years old. Conversely, a high percentage of wolves killed by other wolves are adult males. So adoption bodes better for Lonestar than it does Haida.
“There’s a lot of uninhabited land pretty close by….I think everybody would be delighted if they’d go a ridge or two over, and hang out there—and live happily ever after. But it’s asking a lot of a first-year wolf to pick up and set up a new territory of its own.” (Mike Jimenez, quoted in Bass, p. 102)
Based on wolf howl surveys, it’s estimated that there are at least three packs of wolves in the surrounding 70,000-acre Haliburton Forest Reserve. Does this provide a reasonable opportunity for the two wolves to acquire mates and establish territories?
It could be tight. 70,000 acres equates to just under 300 square kilometers. That’s not big. Depending on many factors, including the availably of resources, a wolf pack may occupy tens or even thousands of square kilometers.
Even a territory as large as 1600 km2 has a diameter of only about 40 km. Wolves can cover this distance in less than a day. (Mech p 20)
To establish a viable territory that meets the needs of their first and possibly second year offspring, a pair needs to claim fifteen times more habitat than they would use to support just themselves. To do this, some pairs start with a smaller territory then encroach upon the neighbors’ lands. Others take advantage of larger unoccupied spaces, often those left by wolves killed by humans.
Whether there is room for one or two additional packs in the Haliburton Forest will depend on several factors:
- 1. How large the current wolf packs are
2. How large their territories are
3. Prey type and quantity; prey determines wolf populations, not the other way around.
4. Availability of other resources – water, denning areas, buffers from humans
5. Turnover — how frequently wolves are lost due to humans or other causes
I don’t know the answers to those questions, so can’t really speculate on the chances the two wolves have in carving out their own spaces. However there is another factor to consider. Wolves think nothing of traveling hundreds of miles to find suitable land. The Haliburton Forest is not a closed system. It borders other wild lands including the 7600 square kilometer Algonquin Provincial Park, itself home to some two dozen wolf packs.
Something biologists are learning is that wolves key in almost frantically to where other wolves have been—old runways and old scent markings—so that this year’s new rash of lone dispersers are pioneers for the future, blazing urine trails through the forest, probably avenues for future expansion and recolonization.” (Bass. p 124) .
In any case, it should be remembered that any shortage or juggling of territories is a problem faced by all of the wolves in the region, not just Haida and Lonestar. In this respect, their success should have little to do with their captive upbringing.
Essentially what these wolves got was what biologists call a “soft-release.” It’s the same gradual technique officials use to reintroduce any formerly captive animal into the wild. The wolves were slowly introduced to the area around them; they were fed until they were no longer interested in the food provided; and they were allowed to leave when they were ready.
Sure it was messy. The timing and location were all wrong, and as a result the pack was broken up badly and wolves died. But still, it gave the surviving wolves the support they needed until they were ready to go.
In an interview in March, Peter Schleifenbaum said:
“Hope is the last thing to die, so obviously we leave the doors literally open…There is a hope but with every day that hope is fading.” (Peter Schleifenbaum quoted in The Haliburton Echo, Mar 11)
I am hopeful. Not hopeful the wolves will come home. Granite isn’t there to entice Haida back and Lonestar is going to follow his natural instinct to roam. But I am optimistic that the loose wolves have the same chances as their wild counterparts of not only surviving, but prospering in the Haliburton Forest and surrounding region. Certainly their chances were better when they were in the sanctuary, but barring further human interference, I think they’ll be fine.
Which brings us back to the question posed to Peter Schleifenbaum:
I recently was asked if I was not happy knowing if/that the two males were able to survive and live out a free life in the wild.
I won’t speak for Peter, but yes, I’m happy knowing they’ll probably survive. But I’m not happy with how their freedom came about. And I definitely don’t think they are better off than they were in captivity.
I want to make this point very clearly: Despite my optimism for the animals, I am adamantly opposed to actions of the vandals. Speaking just in terms of the wolves’ well-being, freeing them was a cruel and unnecessary act.
First, two wolves died painfully and needlessly. Second, the pack structure was destroyed, and any disruption in the pack is highly stressful to the animals; and third, the Haliburton wolves did not require freeing. With 15 acres, privacy from humans, a stable pack, and all the resources necessary to raise a family, those animals were content and destined to live comfortable and probably long lives.
“They say not to anthropomorphize—not to think of them as having feelings, not to think of them as being able to think—but late at night I like to imagine that they are killing: that another deer has gone down in a tangle of legs, tackled in deep snow; and that once again the wolves are feeding. That they have saved themselves, once again.” (Rick Bass)
Unless otherwise noted or linked, all of the information for this post was taken from:
Axelsson, E., Ratnakumar, A., Arendt, M., Maqbool, K., Webster, M., Perloski, M., Liberg, O., Arnemo, J., Hedhammar, �., & Lindblad-Toh, K. (2013). The genomic signature of dog domestication reveals adaptation to a starch-rich diet Nature, 495 (7441), 360-364 DOI: 10.1038/nature11837
Bass, Rick. The Ninemile Wolves. 1st Mariner Books ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co, 2003.
Mech, L. David, and Luigi Boitani. Wolves: behavior, ecology, and conservation. Chicago, Ill.; Bristol: University of Chicago Press ; University Presses Marketing [distributor], 2006. ISBN: 0226516970 9780226516974
All photos taken by me or my husband at the Haliburton Wolf Center. (c ) Use only with permission.
* The “L” pups had not been named at the time of my visit in 2011. Of the four pups, there are a gray and a black of each sex.
**Leila is sometimes spelled Layla on the Haliburton website