Recently I heard an account from a reliable source about, what I assume, was a well-meaning sportsman who interrupted a wolf that was in the process of killing a deer. This is not the first time I have heard of this; sometimes people find a partially eaten carcass and remove it, other times they get involved while the kill is occurring.
I hear about people purposely interacting with wolves because they are concerned about the well-being of people, livestock and pets.
While I can’t tell anyone what they can or cannot do, I recommend anyone who is considering interacting with a wolf on the hunt consider a few points.
First, we want everyone to be safe. Wolf attacks on humans are very rare; in fact, there are supposedly no official records of a healthy wolf attacking a human in North America. Still, wolves are wild animals, and in the act of hunting and killing prey, they could be expected to be even more aggressive and unpredictable than usual. It is a lot of work to kill prey, and predators are operating on instinct at that time. The blood in their bodies is concentrated in their muscles and vital organs so they can complete their task. This means the part of their brain that assesses risks and rewards, decision making as it were, is lower priority and is not in control. Also, the body generates hormones like adrenaline to give it extra strength, endurance, and sensory function, which can also make them more agitated and aggressive.
Second, wolves are apex or keystone predators performing a crucial function in the ecosystem. Studies have shown that wolves will “test” several potential prey animals before taking one down for the kill. For the wolf, this is a way of saving its energy and taking the prey that gives it the most benefit for the least cost.
Granted, in a year like this one, in a winter like this one, they may not test 10 or 12 animals—it may not take much testing at all to find a vulnerable animal. However, generally, we would expect that wolves are killing deer that cannot evade a predator because they have some kind of defect that makes them easier to catch. It might be injury, illness, starvation or even age-related weakness. The deer that evade and survive predation are the most fit—smart, tough, wary and wild.
Finally, it is important to understand the role that deer play in the wild. We humans, as passionate outdoors enthusiasts, hunters or non-consumptive wildlife watchers, have an innate fondness for deer, and feel a need to protect and care for them. We consider them our own. We don’t like to see deer suffer. We don’t like it when they starve, or look hungry, or struggle with injury or disease. It is not much of a stretch to say we don’t like to think of them getting killed and eaten by predators.
Deer are a part of the natural order of things, though, and supply important food for many carnivores and omnivores, including man. Many birds will feed on deer, from chickadees to bald eagles. All sorts of mammals feed on deer carcasses too. I even heard a first-hand account of a wood turtle scraping meat off the rib cage of a deer. Prey species are animals or birds that get consumed by predators, and it is a description that fits the majority of birds and animals in Wisconsin. Deer are majestic, beautiful, mysterious animals, but they are also a prey species, and as such our Northwoods ecosystem relies heavily on their contribution.
Jeremy Holtz is a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin DNR and writes a weekly column in the Star Journal. To contact him, call 715-365-8999.