Wolves Do Not Kill For Sport
Like all other predators, wolves kill for sustenance and survival. They kill other animals to feed themselves, their pack members and their young. The case could be made that some sportsmen kill for sport and not food. But unlike that segment of the human population, wolves do not kill for sport.
The word “sport” refers to activities engaged in for fun, amusement, recreation and pleasure. For wolves, hunting their usual prey is particularly difficult and dangerous. Hunting is not an optional, recreational activity. It comes with a high risk of injury or death, and failure is much more common than success.
Hunting Prey Is Difficult And Dangerous
Throughout much of the northern hemisphere, gray wolves tend to hunt animals much larger than themselves, such as elk, caribou, moose, muskoxen, red deer, argali, wild boar and bison. When hunting animals many times their size, most hunts do not yield a kill. Studies show that wolves only succeed in securing a kill on average between 5-28% of the time. A study from Isle Royale in Michigan shows that wolves succeeded in killing moose, their preferred prey on the island, in 7.8% of hunts. Yellowstone’s chief biologist, Dr. Doug Smith estimates that wolves succeed in hunting elk 5-15% of the time and less than 5% when hunting bison.
Equipped with formidable defenses, the prey animals wolves prefer to hunt can trample wolves under foot or deliver lethal kicks with hooves. Their sharp antlers, horns or tusks are also very capable of killing a wolf. It is not uncommon for wolves to be injured or even killed during the hunt.
What Is Surplus Killing?
When securing food can be a matter of life and death and a necessary means to provide for a large family, it makes sense that wolves, like other predators, will sometimes take advantage of an easy opportunity when one is presented. Consequently, wolves and many other predators will occasionally kill more than they can immediately consume. This phenomenon is known as surplus killing.
For wolves, the rare events of surplus killing of wild prey occur in the late months of winter, but only in conditions where the deep snow of an exceptionally heavy or late winter has depleted the strength and mobility of their prey. Under these conditions, sometimes wolves kill more than they can immediately eat. In the book, Wolves, published by renowned wolf biologists, Dr. L. David Mech and Dr. Luigi Boitani, they write, “In 30 years of wolf-deer study, Mech observed this phenomenon only twice, and in 40 winters of wolf-moose studies, it was seen in only three winters.”
When a surplus killing event happens with domestic sheep, something entirely different (and unnatural) happens. A large variety of predators have been found to surplus kill domestic sheep, including wild felines, canines, bears and domestic dogs. Not only do sheep lack natural defenses, but their instincts often do not serve them well either. Instead of fleeing, as wild prey would do, sheep tend to run in circles, a reaction learned from being herded by working dogs. This chaos can trigger a response in predators that can result in multiple kills. In the Northern Rockies, this behavior has been recorded with mountain lions, bears, coyotes, wolves, and domestic dogs.
Food Does Not Go To Waste
Another misperception about the rare occurrence of surplus killing is that the carcasses are abandoned and the food is wasted. When presented with large amounts of food, wolves and other predators are limited by the capacity of their stomachs. However, wolves will return to the food for weeks or months to come. In Wolves, Dr. Mech noted, “In Denali National Park, six wolves killed at least seventeen caribou about 7 February 1991, and of course could not eat them all. By 12 February, however, 30 to 95 percent of each carcass had been eaten or cached (Mech et al. 1998); by 16 April, wolves had dug up several of the carcasses and fed on them again.”
Sometimes people encounter a carcass that is only partially consumed, leading to the assumption that the kill was abandoned and wasted. The reality is, wolves are very wary and alert, and are therefore easily chased from their kill if other predators or people approach. Wolves are usually long gone before people realize they’ve chanced upon a kill.
Additionally, animals killed by any predator provide food for a host of scavengers such as bears, coyotes, ravens, magpies and eagles. If the predator that made the kill doesn’t immediately finish the food source, it will not go to waste. They will likely return to it, and before they do, others will take advantage of the bounty.
Addressing the question of surplus killing, Dr. Doug Smith of Yellowstone said in a 2014 interview, “We have watched wolves when they have killed more meat than they can immediately consume, and they always come back to finish the carcass unless they are spooked off by people.” He continues, “Wolves don’t kill for the fun of it, when they are likely to get their head bashed in getting dinner. We have seen 15 or more wolves that have been killed by elk, bison, deer and moose. Wolves are risk averse. They don’t want to try to kill something that’s going to get their head bashed in or their stomach kicked in, but when it’s easy, they will kill more than they can immediately eat, but those circumstances crop up pretty rarely. The wolves always cycle back to finish the carcass.”
Click here for an excellent and concise three-minute video of Dr. Smith answering the “sport killing” question.