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Wolves do not kill for sport. That is a fact.

Doug Smith, National Park Service’s (NPS) director of the Yellowstone Wolf Recovery Project, leads efforts to monitor wolves in Yellowstone and has been with the program since wolf reintroduction in the mid-1990s. In this Q&A series posted by the NPS, Smith answers a range of questions on wolves including “Do wolves kill for sport.” (10:15 – 13:30)

Doug Smith Sets the Record Straight

Do wolves kill for sport, or kill more than they can eat?

“Wolves do not kill for sport. That is a fact.

Why? The average wolf weight if we threw all the wolves together (males, females, sub-adults, adults, pups) is about 100 pounds. The average cow elk is 500 pounds, the average bull elk is 750. They (wolves) risk injury or death. When you attack something five to seven times as large as you, that ain’t a fair fight. So they risk tremendous injury or death trying to taking something out bigger than them. So they (wolves) prey on things in risk averse fashion. They only kill what they need to exist, and we’ve got great data on this. Will they kill more than they can eat? If the risk equation balances out in their favor, they will. What does that mean. Late winter, belly-deep snow, elk are weak, they will kill more than they can immediately eat. But underline the word “immediately.” We had a situation in March 1996 where one pack of wolves killed five elk in one day. And they cycled back and ate everything on those five elk in over a two week period. Now they were competing with ravens, and coyotes, and magpies, and eagles, because they were trying to consume it too because, as everybody knows, the bounty of nature is shared and competed for. So they (wolves) went back and tried to eat it all. But that is common predatory behavior. When you can get an edge, when you can get more food, humans do this too – when oil is cheap we burn more oil. When wolves can kill more elk they kill more elk because why? That equals more pups, But they only do it when they can. So on average wolves do not kill healthy elk. It;s too hard. Is all you can eat are healthy elk, the wolf population goes down. Wolves make their living on vulnerable elk. And so their population waxes and wanes based on vulnerabilities. And a hard winter is a vulnerability. But so are things like age, and health status, and condition, bone marrow… All these different things affect elf vulnerability and that’s what’s important to wolves and that what they’re shooting to take advantage of. Remember they is no creature in nature that doesn’t look for advantages. So no, they (wolves) do not kill for fun, but yes, they will kill for more than what they can immediately eat, but if left alone by humans (this is very important I get sent emails all the time showing an elk killed by wolves and not eaten – but there’s tire tracks, there’s human tracks, there’s horse tracks… the wolves were bumped off the kill. People found the kill to take a picture of it. Left alone, as we’ve demonstrated here in Yellowstone, and we’ve seen it more, killing a couple of elk is sometimes fairly common. If they’re not disturbed, they’ll eat everything. They won;t do it immediately because they have a capacity on their stomach. So very, very important point – killing for fun or bloodthirsty reasons is not true.”