Ah, the howl of the wolf. Is any sound in nature more primordial? That eerie call, echoing off the spruce and rock faces of a frozen northern lake on a frigid winter's night, can rouse a man from sleep and fill his head with images of tracks in the snow and gore on the ice.
A wolf is a paradox. On one hand, it is a fearsome predator; on the other, a social animal that, when caught relaxed, is not all that different from the family dog.
There seems to be no middle ground when it comes to them either. Some view them as a welcome indicator species; others as a threat to local livestock and game animal populations.
Our forefathers had no time for that debate - they were too busy trying to make the most of a hostile wilderness. As a result, throughout North America, as in Europe, wolves were shown little mercy. They were trapped, poisoned, and shot. Bounties were collected or their furs were sold. Sometimes, they were just left to rot.
These days, a different attitude pervades. Where wolves still exist, in most of Canada and Alaska, they are, for the most part, treated as a respected game animal capable of putting the most experienced hunter to the test. Where they once roamed, they are often lamented, and in some areas, experimental populations or recovery efforts are being monitored.
With these things in mind, here are a few things that every prospective wolf hunter should know.
North American wolves are divided into two major groups, Canis Lupus (commonly known as the Gray Wolf) and Canis rufus (the Red wolf). Having said this, in eastern Canada, Canis Lupus Lycaon has recently been recognized as a distinct sub-species that is now called the Eastern wolf.
The Gray wolf is the largest and most widely distributed of the wolves. It is believed that this species originated in Eurasia and crossed the Bering straits into North America long ago.
On average, males weigh 80 to 100 pounds (they can get considerably larger) and have coats that vary depending on location and habitat. Arctic gray wolves (Canis Lupus arctos), for instance, often have a white coat with a dense under fur. Most however, vary from gray and buff to near black.
The Red wolf is a native North American species and considered one of the most endangered species in the world. Originally a resident of the eastern Carolinian forests, early colonists in North America nearly extirpated them. And as their population decreased, inter-breeding with coyotes became more common, posing yet another threat to this species. Adult males weigh between 40 and 80 pounds on average.
Brent Patterson, a wolf researcher for Ontario's Ministry of Natural Resources says the Eastern wolf has very similar genetics to the Red wolf but is different - "perhaps this is a case of genetic drift" due to a mixture of gray wolf and coyote interbreeding.
Eastern wolves were referred to as brush wolves and this might not be a bad description of them - in many cases they appear more as coyotes than gray wolves. An average male is about 65 pounds. They are common within their range and are heavily dependent on deer.
In Canada, Gray wolves can be found in boreal forests from Labrador, on the east coast, to British Columbia, on the west coast, as well as north to the tundra in the Arctic Circle. They are also common in Alaska where their population is estimated at up to 8000 animals.
In the lower 48 states, wolf populations are considered endangered with the exception the following:
The Western Great Lake States population consists of approximately 3949 wolves that range throughout Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin. They have been de-listed from the federal list of threatened and endangered species. This paves the way for those states to manage populations without federal direction. Each state has an obligation to continue maintaining wolf populations in their jurisdictions. These populations are thriving and have met their goals - if hunting in the lower 48 is to occur, these places might well among the first to regulate it.
The Northern Rocky Mountains Recovery Area is another bright, albeit controversial, spot for wolves. This includes a natural population that has recovered in northwest Montana as well as an experimental population in central Idaho and the Yellowstone ecosystem that covers parts of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. The population is estimated at 1243 wolves as of December 2006.
The area's wolves, along with those in the eastern one-third of Washington and Oregon, and a small part of north-central Utah is slated to be de-listed but complications with Wyoming's management plan have delayed this process.
Lastly, 59 Mexican Gray wolves have been re-introduced to portions of New Mexico and Arizona. This experimental population is known as the Southwestern Mexican-Gray wolf experimental population.
The bottom line is that Gray wolves in the lower 48 states have come a long way since they were listed as endangered in 1973.
Red wolves, on the other hand, remain endangered except for experimental populations in Florida, North Carolina, and South Carolina. In the early 1980s they were thought to be extinct. The first recovery plan published in 1990 recorded 135 known red wolves, with 20 in the wild and the rest in captivity. Now about 100 roam wild areas of North Carolina and a further 150 or so are in captivity to regenerate their numbers.
Eastern wolf populations are high. They can be found in good numbers from the boreal forests of Quebec in the east to the western borders of Ontario. They are a wolf that is less shy of man and, as a result is seen and heard, more often.
Wolves are a carnivorous pack animal. Opportunistic and cunning, they'll hunt whatever big ungulate exists in their range. Most commonly, this includes deer, moose, bison, and elk. Further north, muskox and caribou are also on the menu. Beaver and smaller prey such as hares, other rodents, game birds and even house pets help fill in the lean times between ungulate kills. And, of course, in sheep and cattle country, wolves can be problematic.
Human wolf encounters are extremely rare but not unheard of.
Normally, the alpha-male and alpha-female of the pack breed in January. After a 9-week gestation period, a litter of 5 to 7 pups (on average) is born. Pups are birthed in a dug out den that is often in close proximity to fields, beaver meadows, and water. Dens can be used year after year if undisturbed.
The pack, consisting of the alpha-pair, their offspring, and non-breeding adults, will hunt together in winter and separate in summer, regrouping frequently at rendezvous sites in isolated meadows or, if undisturbed, at the den, until early autumn when the pups are strong enough to keep up with the pack. Patterson says the rendezvous site is essentially a safe place to store pups that can not keep up yet.
Wolves can breed at two years old, and young wolves will often separate from the pack to start new ones. Prey availability and movement determines the size of a pack's territory. Territories as large as 1000 square miles have been recorded. Wolves will defend their hunting grounds from other packs.
Wolf howls are a form of communication when on the hunt or kill site, territorial announcement to rival packs, and perhaps even play. Whatever the case, hearing a pack howl at the moon is an experience few people forget.
Currently, wolf hunting is not permitted in the lower 48 states. Alaska, however, is noted for its excellent wolf hunting. Depending on the game management unit, daily limits range from 5 to 20 wolves and seasons run from August to late May.
Canadian provinces and territories that also have huntable populations of wolves. Labrador, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta, British Columbia, Northwest Territories, and the Yukon have seasons open to residents and non-residents. In Ontario and Quebec, both Gray and Eastern wolves can be taken. Non-residents may not take wolves in Saskatchewan. Regulations throughout the Canadian provinces vary even within the province. So, prospective hunters are well advised to research Provincial or territorial regulations thoroughly before deciding on where to hunt.
Most wolves are taken incidentally while hunting for other species, such as deer, bear, or moose. However, a growing number of hunters are beginning to respect the challenge and excitement that wolf hunting represents. Serious wolf hunters spend the winter months pursuing these cagey animals. Predator calling or, where legal, baits are two common hunting practices.
A Parting Shot
Like them or not, wolves belong on the landscape. Countering concerns regarding their effects on game populations or livestock are benefits bestowed by wolves. These include, taking sick or weak game animals out of the gene pool, keeping rodent and beaver populations in check, limiting coyote numbers, thinning overpopulated herds so that habitat can recover, and increased tourism (which might include wolf hunting) opportunities.
As someone who lives in an area near Algonquin Park in Ontario, an area famous for wolves, I can attest to the thrill of seeing one ghost through the boreal forest and the spine-tingling sensation that is felt when a nearby pack bays at the moon. These things too, are what hunting and the outdoors is all about.
To think anything different is shortsighted and contrary to the conservation ethic that we, as hunters, believe in.
Steve Galea is a full-time outdoors writer who lives in central Ontario, Canada. He divides his time afield between hunting big game, chasing ducks, geese, and upland game, and fly fishing the lakes and rivers around his home. An award-winning columnist, his work is featured in several community newsapers as well as leading outdoors magazines.