Points North: Do Wolves Have Longer Memories Than People?

Gray Wolf (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service-Midwest Region)
Gray Wolf (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service-Midwest Region)

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Abby, the old dog, found a headless grouse in the yard on a cold, clear morning last week. Still warm, the grouse was lying in a shallow crater in the snow as if something had dropped the bird from above. Since it was shortly after daybreak, most likely we'd interrupted an owl eating a kill. Several owl species frequent our neighborhood.

Around here, we have predators galore. In addition to owls, numerous species of hawks and eagles patrol the sky. On the ground, weasels, mink, martens, fishers, skunks and otters, compete with raccoons, red fox, gray fox, coyotes, wolves, stray dogs, house cats, bobcats, lynx and perhaps an occasional cougar for a warm-blooded menu of small mammals, birds, beavers, deer and moose. It's a wonder everyone finds enough to eat.

Possessing keen, canine noses, I suspect my dogs know more about the comings and goings of the neighborhood predators than me. Nearly all predators use urine and musk as scent markings to communicate with others of their kind. During the late-winter mating season for wild canines, you can see the splashes of urine left by wandering wolves and fox along the snowy trail where I walk with the dogs. Sometimes, even I can smell the musky odors. The dogs investigate these wild bulletin boards in the snow and leave messages of their own.

I wonder how well my pets know our canine neighbors just from the scents they leave. Surely they are familiar with other dogs living nearby. I suspect they recognize the scent of the two red fox which frequent our property. But I wonder how well they know the local wolves, or if the wolves know them. And when they pee on the same rock, what are they saying to one another?

It is possible our dogs know more about living with wolves than we do. Recently, I talked with a friend whose wife encountered a wolf while walking their dog last summer. The young wolf didn't attack the dog, but he and his wife worry the dog may not be so lucky the next time. My friend doesn't trust wolves, which he sees frequently around his home, and sometimes carries a pistol when out for a walk to protect the dog if necessary. He's by no means the only northern Minnesota dog walker to do so.

Ironically, my friend doesn't think Minnesota needs a wolf season and even bet me five bucks that one won't occur this year. He points to the Rocky Mountain states, where all things wolf are controversial, and wonders why northern Minnesota, with more wolves and more people, has little controversy.

"We've learned to live with wolves," he says.

He is likely correct, but there is a flip side to the coin. Recently, I read a book written by a fellow who has spent more than 20 years observing and photographing wolves on wilderness islands along the British Columbia coast. He is able to photograph the animals near their dens and rally sites, because they are aware of and tolerate his presence. He is careful to respect the animals and to be perceived as nonthreatening. As a result, he’s had a unique opportunity to learn about wolves simply by spending countless days among them. Something he's discovered is wolf dens are nearly always associated with the ancient ruins of native dwellings. Suspecting this isn't coincidence, he suggests wolves may remember something about the ancient association between man and wolf that humans have forgotten.

This isn’t a far-fetched idea. For a hunting people, which is what humans were throughout most of the millennia of our existence, the wolf was nothing other than a fellow traveler. It is likely wolves scavenged our hunting kills and perhaps we scavenged theirs. We had little to fear from one another. Humans and wolves coexisted in this way for tens of thousands of years, which eventually led to the domestication of dogs. But the ancient relationship changed a few thousand years ago when man began herding livestock. Instead of hunting wild game, man began protecting livestock herds from other hunters—like the wolf.

Man probably changed more than wolves. Perhaps the wolf behavior we now describe as “fearless” or “habituated”—when wolves don’t immediately flee from people—is really just a wolf being a wolf. Has 30 years of protection from indiscriminate killing rekindled ancient memories of our coexistence? If so, we may not have learned much of anything about living with wolves during that time span, but instead, through regulation, allowed them to again coexist with us.

In portions of northern Minnesota with few livestock, perhaps we could continue this experiment in coexistence. But we cannot return to the association we had with wolves when humans hunted for their sustenance. People are too numerous, use too much of the landscape and are too intolerant of wild critters, especially predators. We are even told by state wildlife managers some Minnesotans have a “pent up” desire to start killing wolves.

If we’ve learned anything from the experiences of the mountain states where wolf hunting and trapping were recently begun, it’s that the animals quickly become adept at avoiding people who try to kill them. In the dense forests of northern Minnesota, where wolves were never exterminated as they were in the West, it will be even easier for them to evade people. As wolf experts have already noted, regulated hunting and trapping will have little effect overall on Minnesota’s wolf population, simply because the animals are elusive and prolific. It doesn’t really matter if Minnesotans have learned to live with wolves. In our long association with the animal, they have never forgotten how to live with us.

Airdate: February 17, 2012

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