Understanding wolf behavior—for your safety and theirs

Understanding wolf behavior—for your safety and theirs

Conservation Northwest / Jul 31, 2018 / Range Riding, Restoring Wildlife, Wolves

Our Wolf Program Lead, a biologist with decades of experience working around wolves, shares perspectives on wolf behavior and how understanding can keep people, pets and wildlife safe.

By Jay Shepherd, Ph.D., Wolf Program Lead

Now that summer is in full swing and many are out enjoying Washington’s wild places, it’s timely to think about encounters with Northwest wildlife.

Given recent events with wolves, including the first radio-collared wolf residing west of the Cascade Crest and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) employee who had an encounter with two wolves near a den site in Okanogan County, we thought we’d share some information on how to better understand wolf behavior—for your safety and theirs.

A curious wolf inspects a remote camera in Washington’s North Cascades Photo: David Moskowitz. Used with permission.

I have worked as a biologist for almost 30 years in Western and Eastern Washington, Montana, Idaho, and Alaska. For approximately the last ten years, I worked for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WFDW) surveying for wolf activity and presence, responding to sightings by the public, and eventually dealing with complaints and wolf-livestock conflict. I joined Conservation Northwest as the Wolf Program Lead, including managing the Range Rider Pilot Project, in 2016.

Wolf issues, including the biological, social and political aspects, have been interesting to watch develop in Washington over the past ten years, particularly in the northeast corner of the state where I live. There is a lot to understand about this complex carnivore and I personally feel I am still a long ways from a full understanding, but I’m getting down that road. I have seen them up close and have been amazed as well as anxious.

Understanding Wolf Behavior

What has helped me living, working, playing, and being a responsible dog and wildlife owner (as citizens of the state we all “own” wildlife as a public trust) in wolf-occupied parts of the West? First, knowing that understanding wolf behavior may reduce the anxiety and potential danger of any particular encounter.

Wolves generally work hard to avoid humans. I was on a closed Forest Service road in Pend Oreille County Washington along the Idaho border in 2010 with another biologist walking and looking down for tracks when he said quietly “a wolf”. I raised my binoculars and looked up on the brushy hill side a few hundred yards in front of us. He said, “No, right there”. It was on the rise in the road just 50 yards in front of us.

We stopped and the wolf did too, it looked at us and tried to understand what these still objects were and get a scent, and then nonchalantly turned around and disappeared on the other side of the rise in the road. The creek noise and wind must have allowed for us to walk undetected and we were not talking too much. It was my first encounter with a wolf in close proximity. It was an adrenaline rush but there was no aggression shown.

Still, it’s important to understand that while attacks on humans by wild wolves are exceedingly rare, wolves may act in a defensive manner in certain circumstances. They can be particularly territorial around den and rendezvous sites (rearing or “day care” locations for adolescent wolves) in the interest of protecting pups. Barking, snorting, growling and even circling and bluff-charging are all warnings to stay away from pups or food sources.

I was barked at for quite a while one afternoon while working in the Kettle River Mountain Range. It was unnerving and uncomfortable to know that a wolf that sounded large and irritated wanted myself and the others to leave the area. After an initial encounter, wolves may also circle and howl from a distance before again approaching a perceived intruder. While not always menacing, this type of encounter should be handled cautiously.

Wolf pups from the Smackout Pack at a rendezvous site in northeast Washington’s Colville National Forest. Photo: Jay Shepherd / WDFW

In the late 1990’s in Montana, sometime during the denning season, myself and another biologist saw young wolf pups down along a stream bank from above on a gated road. Both naive at the time—it was early in the return of wolves to the American West—he said I wonder where the pack is and said, “let’s howl”. Before I could say, “Let’s think about it” he gave a pretty convincing howl. We then heard howls and growl-barks from behind us, and wolves running to our left to get to the stream bank to hide and protect the pups.

We had surprised the pack, again probably due to the wind direction and the fact that we spent a lot of time working  in the woods together and weren’t very chatty.

These more assertive behaviors are almost always related to denning/rendezvous sites and typically occur from April through July—the pup-raising period. It’s helpful to remember that these behaviors are not attacks but rather displays to intimidate and scare off intruders. Wolves are very social and territorial, and do not want to move from their pups or from established denning areas or rendezvous sites. Which is understandable: would your family stand quietly by as large strangers approach your home with children inside?

Another wolf pack on the Colville National Forest was near cattle in Stevens County early in Washington’s wolf recolonization days. I worked for Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife then and with the local ranchers (who are part of CNW’s Range Rider Pilot Project) called Conservation Northwest friends and asked for help hazing the wolves from the area with cattle.

The den and pups were relatively close to a staging area for the cattle round-up, and despite the strenuous hazing activity over multiple days, wolves stayed nearby. An exasperated CNW crew at least laughed about the event and the stubbornness of the wolves, using it as a learning experience about the complexities of range riding and conflict avoidance. We also agreed that while the wolves had been in close proximity—howling, barking, circling and generally unwilling to leave—we never felt truly threatened.

Watching for Signs

A typical wolf scat in northeast Washington’s Colville National Forest. Note the visible hair in the scat, likely from deer. Photo: Chase Gunnell

In addition to knowledge of wolf behavior, recognizing wolf signs including the following may help you understand that you are a near reproductive wolf pack:

  • Scats (droppings) of various sizes (the scat of adult wolves is similar in size to that of a large dog, often with hair visible),
  • Concentrated tracks (see a guide to distinguishing wolf tracks)
  • Chewed up bones or litter (wolves will gnaw on bones and plastic garbage much like domestic dogs do),
  • Vocalizations such as barking or repeated howling,
  • An obvious den, often in an embankment or under snag trees and typically 1.5-2 feet in diameter.

Knowing that wolves are strongly tied to their breeding areas, if you’re seeing or hearing this level of wolf activity, I suggest slowly and calmly leaving the area, either by backing away or by making a wide berth around the area of activity.

Wolf tracks in Montana’s Tom Miner Basin. Photo: Chase Gunnell

As Washington’s wolf country is also bear country (both black and grizzly bears are found in the North Cascades and northeast Washington), you should be carrying bear spray on your belt or outside your pack. If the wolves sound close or show themselves, keep it handy and wait to deploy unless the wolves approach within 30 feet, just as one would during a bear encounter.

Tips on proper bear spray use are also available in this video from Parks Canada.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Wildlife, a state home to more than 11,000 wolves, also lists recommendations for wolf encounters, including:

  • Do not run or turn your back toward an aggressive wolf or wolves.
    A wolf den in Montana’s Tom Miner Basin. Photo: Chase Gunnell
  • Retreat slowly while facing a wolf and act aggressively, maintain eye contact if possible.
  • If you are with a companion and more than one wolf is present, place yourselves back to back and slowly move away from the wolves.
  • Use air horns or other noisemakers.
  • Aggressively use poles, rocks, limbs, or other handy items to discourage wolves from approaching.
  • Stand your ground if a wolf attacks you and fight with any means possible (use sticks, rocks, ski poles, fishing rods or whatever you can find).
  • Climb a tree if necessary; wolves cannot climb trees

To be Preventative

Consider hiking or participating in other outdoor activities with partners or in groups. This shouldn’t dissuade anyone from getting outdoors alone (except perhaps in very dense grizzly bear country), but being with or around others will increase your safety if encounters with large wildlife happen, and when other events such as medical emergencies occur.

Keep your dog well-tended and under control. This is an important point to stress, and one I emphasize as someone with an active canine companion. Wolves perceive other canines as competitors, and wolf attacks on domestic, herding and hunting dogs are not uncommon.

I believe it is best to have your dog(s) on leash while in wolf country. In northeast Washington, I walk my young German Shepherd on a long lead attached to a chest harness with a quick release. I can control him no matter what we run into, including other dogs that didn’t go to “friendly school”. I have run into moose, a cougar, and misbehaving dogs while hiking with my dog, but not yet bears and wolves.

Keep a clean residence or camp. I have seen wolf activity around rural homes that have livestock and in public campgrounds after busy periods, scavenging much like coyotes or ravens.

Jay Shepherd, our Wolf Program Lead, at work in northeast Washington.

On Canada’s Vancouver Island, the Pacific Rim National Park has had wolves try to steal food from campsites that were actually in use. Wolves in Vargas Island Provincial Park have learned to open kayak hatches looking for food. Issues with human-habituated wolves are escalating in the area due to poor food storage and pet practices.

It is important to remember that it’s potentially harmful to people but also to wolves when they get used to humans. Do not approach wolves, feed them, or purposefully go near den sites or pups. Not only is it important for your safety to avoid eliciting a defensive reaction, but wolves can become used to people, putting them at risk for a potentially fatal conflict.

This information is not meant to alarm hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts as dangerous wildlife encounters remain rare. And dangerous wolf encounters are far less common than run-ins with aggressive moose, elk and especially domestic dogs. Being aware of your surroundings and what you are hearing and seeing on the ground can change a potentially dangerous encounter into an interesting and memorable wildlife sighting.

Jay Shepherd coordinates our Wolf Program, including managing our Range Rider Pilot Project and working with local ranchers and conservationists in northeast Washington. Dr. Shepherd has a long history in wildlife research and management with state and federal agencies in western North America, most recently immersed in wolf recovery and reducing wildlife conflicts in Washington. He has a B.S. in Wildlife Resources, an M.S. in Wildlife Biology, and a Ph.D. in Natural Resources from the University of Idaho. Jay loves the landscape and people of northeastern Washington. Read his full biography.


Learn more about our work on wolf recovery, read tips and info about coexisting with wolves, or learn about our Range Rider Pilot Project, now in its eighth year of working with Eastern Washington ranches to deploy non-lethal measures to reduce or prevent conflicts.