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Archive for October, 2019

By Ilona Popper

It was a cold February day near the Slough Creek Road in Yellowstone National Park. A group of us was watching wolves hunting—two different hunts. We could see the Slough Creek pack to the north, testing a herd of elk, but I trained my spotting scope on 527’s group. The three wolves were attacking a bull elk on the south side of the road, a half mile from where I stood.

The animals were deep in snow. A black adult, informally called The Dark Female, bit and held on to one back leg. 527F, the leader of this group, a sturdy black 5-year-old female wolf that had been radio-collared and numbered by the Yellowstone Wolf Project, closed her jaws on the middle of the bull’s throat. The bull dropped to his knees. After a second or two, he hauled himself to standing. As he did, 527 was lifted off her feet, hanging from the elk by her teeth.

Wolves’ teeth cannot always shear muscle. Instead they mash, bruise and hemorrhage tissue. Hanging on to the throat is a different strategy: crushing the airway and suffocating the animal. 527 held on even as the bull rose up with her and held on when he collapsed, but she couldn’t keep her jaw-grip when he lifted and battered her against his shoulders. The third wolf, a yearling gray male, stood in the rear, taking in the scenery.

At least three times the bull elk got to his feet and flung off 527. He had a full rack and to me, he seemed tall and strong compared to the three wolves at his side.

Once when the bull fell, the female wolves let go and just sat where each had been holding him, as if to catch their breaths. They seemed to float on the crust of the snow, nearly leaning up against the bull, who was sunk in to his chest. The animals—the two wolves and the bull elk—panted together, breaths steaming, like athletic teammates sharing a break.

After a bit, the bull stood and the wolves resumed trying to kill him.

At one point, the young Gray Male joined The Dark Female at the bull’s back legs. Repeatedly, the bull rose from his knees and shook free of the wolves. The wolves trailed him, still winded, but when he stumbled in snow up to his neck, the two female wolves bit and held on again. The bull was bleeding from his rectum.

It was eye-opening to watch this hunt. Until I came to Yellowstone and watched wild wolves, I’d never pictured that it might be exhausting and difficult for them to kill their prey. I knew wolves chose “the weak.” “Survival of the fittest”—people bat around this phrase a lot. But what does that really look like?

If I’d thought about it at all, I’d have assumed that once they’d settled on their “weaker” prey, predators found killing pretty easy. But to my eyes, 527 and the Dark Female threw everything they had at killing this elk—and still they struggled. They were apex predators, but they were the ones who looked vulnerable.

Wolves can appear strong, athletic, tough, focused and driven. Wolves of all ages can be playful, goofy and unstintingly caring with their young.

Our image of predatory animals is often demonic. They have no fear, but instill fear in their prey—and in us. They walk the earth troll-like, confident of their power, full of malice or even sadism. Wolves kill for fun, some say. We use the word predator to describe a type of human monster: sexual predator; financial predator. Serial killers are predators. These concepts equate prey with victimhood and predators with evil and death. With that logic, we assume that prey animals are at a disadvantage, even innocent.  Far from it.

Elk and other prey have evolved to give wolves a run for their lives. Literally. Wolves get prey like elk running, partly to assess fitness and to stay clear of front-hoof strikes; elk run close together, making it harder to get picked off. Yet, wolves succeed on average in 5 to 15 percent of their attempts to take down prey…

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