Wolf populations should be assessed by packs, not individuals

The government’s decision to delist gray wolves is flawed.


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to delist gray wolves nationwide is flawed because it’s based on the total number of wolves, a statistical approach that, according to wolf biologist Gordon Haber, is “ecological nonsense.”

Haber spent over 43 years observing Alaska’s wild wolves, mostly in Denali National Park, before dying in a plane crash while tracking wolves. To locate wolves, he snowshoed, skied and flew in winter; he backpacked and hiked in summer. He endured minus 50 degree Fahrenheit temperatures, blizzards, thunderstorms, mosquitoes, and the risk of grizzly and moose attacks. Few modern biologists have such unassailable experiential authority.

Haber’s take-home message was this: You can’t manage wolves by the numbers. You can’t count the number of wolves in an area and decide whether it’s a “healthy” population, because what really counts is the family group, or pack, as some still call it.

“Wolves are perhaps the most social of all nonhuman vertebrates,” wrote Haber. “A ‘pack’ of wolves is not a snarling aggregation of fighting beasts, each bent on fending only for itself, but a highly organized, well-disciplined group of related individuals or family units, all working together in a remarkably amiable, efficient manner.”

Haber devoted his career to studying intact family groups, especially the Toklat wolves of Alaska. First made famous by Adolph Murie’s 1944 The Wolves of Mount McKinley, the Toklats rank with Jane Goodall’s chimpanzees as the two longest-studied mammal social groups in the wild.

Wolves go to great lengths to stay with family; when important members are lost, families can disintegrate and remaining individuals often die. Haber knew this firsthand owing to an alpha female wolf, who, after her mate was killed in a botched government darting study, died of starvation, alone. Relocated wolves travel hundreds of miles to return home. And the first wolf seen in California in 90 years, OR7, has never stopped moving: He’s searching for a mate, for family.

Left unexploited (that is, not killed) by humans, wolves develop societies that are astonishingly complex and beautifully tuned to their precise environment. Once, Haber observed the Toklat wolves moving their den because heavy winter snow had decimated the moose population; a week before pupping, the wolves shifted to another den closer to caribou. He also recorded unique hunting methods, among them moose hunting by the Savage River family that he called “storm-and-circle.”

Family groups develop unique and highly cooperative pup-rearing and hunting techniques that amount to cultural traditions, though these take generations to mature and can be lost forever if the family disintegrates. After the entire Savage River family was shot illegally in the winter of 1982-’83, Haber never saw the storm-and-circle technique again.

A healthy wolf population is more than x number of wolves inhabiting y square miles of territory. The notion that we can “harvest” a fixed percentage of a wolf population corresponding to natural mortality rates and still maintain a viable population misses the point. According to Haber, it’s not how many wolves you kill, it’s which wolves you kill.

Natural losses typically take younger wolves, whereas hunting and trapping take the older and more experienced wolves. These older wolves are essential because they know the territory, prey movements, hunting techniques, denning sites, pup rearing -- and because they are the breeders. Haber observed this many times: Whenever an alpha wolf was shot or trapped, it set off a cascade of events that left most of the family dead and the rest scattered, rag-tag orphans.

It happened again in April 2012. A trapper dumped his horse’s carcass along the Denali National Park boundary, surrounded it with snares, and killed the pregnant alpha female of the most-viewed wolf group in Denali.  With her death, the family group had no pups, and it disintegrated, shrinking from 15 to three wolves. That summer, for hundreds of thousands of park visitors, wolf-viewing success dropped by 70 percent.

This is not unique to Alaska. In 2009, Yellowstone National Park’s Cottonwood group disappeared after losing four wolves to hunting, including both alphas. In 2013, the park’s Lamar Canyon family group splintered when the alpha female -- nicknamed “rock star” -- was shot.

So it’s never about numbers. It’s about family. A wolf is a wolf when it’s part of an intact, unexploited family group. Wolves are no longer endangered when these groups have permanent protection, and when we manage according to this essential functional unit.  If we leave wolves alone, we’ll be the ones to benefit.

The government has extended the comment period for delisting gray wolves from Endangered Species Act protection to Dec. 17, 2013. Go to www.regulations.gov and click on Gray wolf: Docket N. (FWS-HQ-ES-2013-0073).

Marybeth Holleman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. With Gordon Haber, she is the author of Among Wolves: Gordon Haber’s Insights into Alaska’s Most Misunderstood Animal. She also runs the blog Art and Nature and lives in Anchorage, Alaska.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

Kirk Hohenberger
Kirk Hohenberger Subscriber
Nov 10, 2013 03:50 PM
Great article, and new imformation. Unfortunately our government regulatory agencies are not listening to it.
alia mulder
alia mulder
Nov 15, 2013 10:48 AM
I study human dimensions of wildlife conflict, and my Master's thesis regards wolves and hunting. The following is my understanding of the issue after reading all of the lit, talking to wolf biologists and managers and hunters, trappers, and ranchers: Not new information. It's kind of out of date and incorrect. It makes the assumption that all wolves exist in family packs. They don't. The term "family pack" is really what we call a breeding pair. Packs on the other hand can be an association of a few wolves of any sex or relation (there's a bit more to this). The way the population counts are done, lone/transient wolves are typically not counted, which is why we say that at a minimum there are at least x number of wolves. This comes from the difficulty of tracking wolves in rugged terrain. When tracking in snow, you can never say that there was definitely a given number of animals. Animals often walk in each other's prints in snow to save energy. Also, this article states that hunting and trapping take older animals. This is also not quite accurate. When livestock depredation or other conflicts occur, the agencies MAY target the 'alphas'. However, public hunting and trapping leads to younger, naive wolves being taken. Young wolves are most at risk when dispersing into new areas. The older ones by all accounts are too savvy to get caught, particularly in traps. When the ties of family groups matter the most is during the early raising of pups. Removal of alphas at this point can make it hard to survive summer as a unit and continued raising of the pups requires them to be old enough to be weaned.
alia mulder
alia mulder
Nov 15, 2013 10:50 AM
I should say that it DOES matter which wolves you kill. This article is just slightly off-base
rex smith
rex smith
Apr 16, 2014 09:06 AM
Thanks Alia Mulder
fernando moreno castillo
fernando moreno castillo
Apr 16, 2014 10:15 AM
Well, Alia, by saying that is DOES matter which wolf you kill, you are assuming that those who are hunting (slaughtering them really) them DO know which ones to kill, which quite honestly sounds a bit inaccurate (not to say a LOT). Another thing, the wolf IS a social animal, as well as a social hunter. The wolf isn't really meant to live alone, or in a small group, then again that has more to do with what lives around them that sustains them, as the bigger the prey, the bigger the pack.

Those wolves who travel alone, commonly known as lone wolves, usually are adults who left the pack to form their own group, sometimes forced out by the alphas, sometimes self initiated. Othe3r times, most times it is due to human negligence when managing wildlife, plain and simple.

I am interested to know if indeed your theory is well based, and I'm not opposed to being mistaken myself, but I would also check your sources before believing anything you're telling. I strongly disagree with your assessment, for I believe it is you who is slightly incorrect in your perception on the issue. Again, those slaughtering the wolves usually have an agenda, whether it is trophy hunting, "population control" or simply the common hatred portrayed against this beautiful social hunter.
fernando moreno castillo
fernando moreno castillo
Apr 16, 2014 11:17 AM
Census of wolf population cannot be trusted in most cases anyway, and you yourself described why... they are inacurate and they do NOT take ALL of the science involved. The wolf's main problem isn't really hunting, or population control, it is our stigmatization against it, our own prejudice, and when I say ours, I am really being kind, it is theirs...