The old bull moose stood with his head lowered, perhaps to get a better view through the dusk of the forest or perhaps to give a better one of his antlers to the nine pairs of yellow eyes that were watching him. The antlers were full-grown by now with a spread of nearly five feet. At the shoulder he was as tall as a horse and probably weighed the best part of eleven hundred pounds. But he was lame and past his prime and both he and the wolves knew it.

They had found him in a bend of the creek, browsing its bank in a thicket of slender aspens which looked like zebra stripes against the dark brown of his flank. He had turned to face them and stood his ground and for the last five minutes predator and prey had waited, weighing their respective chances.

The pups were just big enough now to come hunting with the others, though they normally hung back with their mother or one of the younger adults. The mother was much paler than her mate, the alpha male, and in the twilight looked almost white. The pups and the two younger adults - one male, one female - were various shades of gray between. Occasionally one of the pups fidgeted or whimpered, as if bored with the wait, and one of the alpha pair, mother or father, would chide it with a look and a quiet growl.

The moose was about twenty yards away. Behind him, the creek gleamed like bronze in the dying light. A cloud of freshly hatched flies pirouetted above its surface and a pair of lace-winged moths flitted like pale spirits against the dark of the pines beyond.

Now the alpha male moved. His tail was bushier than the others and usually held higher, but he kept it lower now as he went slowly in an arc to the right, keeping the same distance from the moose all the way. Then he stopped and retraced his steps and made a matching arc to the left, hoping to prompt the old bull to make a run.

A moose that stood its ground, even one that was old and lame, was much harder to kill. He could see where his attackers were coming from and aim his defensive blows more accurately. One well-placed kick could crack a wolf's skull. They had to get him running, when he couldn't aim so well or see where the next bite was coming from.

But all the old bull moved were his eyes. They followed the wolf's every step, first one way, then the other. The wolf stopped on the left and lay down. And, on cue, the alpha female now moved forward. She went to the right, slowly, almost sauntering, and farther than the male had gone, so that when she stopped she was down by the edge of the creek and slipping behind the moose and at lasts he had to move to keep an eye on her.

He stepped backward, turning his head toward her and at the same time realized he had taken his eye off the alpha male and turned back, taking a couple of small backward steps. And as he moved, the younger female moved too, following her mother through the trees.

The moose shifted uneasily, edging back toward the water, perhaps now wondering if, after all, it might not be better to run.

His first instinct might have been to head into the creek, but when he turned that way he saw the two female wolves had worked their way along the bank below him. Between them and the alpha male there was probably not enough space to escape. The alpha female's paws were in the water and when the moose looked at her, she casually lowered her head to drink, as if that was all she was there to do.

On some silent signal, the younger male adult and the five pups were moving now, heading toward the alpha male. And in so doing, they opened a wide gap which, as he was no doubt intended to, the moose saw.

Suddenly he erupted. He thundered off through the thicket, his hooves churning the damp, black earth and his antlers clacking against the white stems of the aspens, gashing their bark and setting off a shower of leaves in his wake.

​As soon as he moved, the wolves were after him. He was partly lame in his right front leg and he ran with an odd rocking motion. The alpha male must have seen this for it seemed to summon extra energy in him. He was gaining on the moose with every bound. The others were close on his heels, dodging in their different routes through the trees and leaping the rock and rotting wood that littered the forest floor.

Upstream, the bank of the creek was clearer and the old bull moose headed that way, hoping perhaps to run where his antlers wouldn't hinder him and where with luck he could gain access to the water. But as he emerged from the thicket, the alpha male made a great lunge and fastened his teeth onto the left of his rump.

The moose struck out with his hind feet but the wolf swung clear of them without loosening his grip and the fraction of speed the moose lost by kicking gave the alpha female her chance. Her teeth flashed and found purchase in the bull's right flank and as he tried to kick at her he stumbled. He quickly found his footing again and he plowed on up the clearing with the two wolves locked to his flesh and swinging from him like stoles. 

He had gone more than half a mile, through another thicket and out again onto a rocky meadow, when the younger adults got involved. Before, they had seemed content to leave the attack to the alphas, but now they started slashing at the bull's other flank. The pups loped along behind, the bolder among them plainly tempted to join in, the others hanging back, preferring to watch and learn.

Up ahead, their father lost his hold and the moose thrashed out and caught him a thudding blow on the shoulder with a hind hoof, sending him cartwheeling into the undergrowth in a cloud of dust. But the wolf was on his feet again at once and, seeing the moose veer toward the creek, raced at an angle to cut him off. Within a few seconds he was alongside and he twisted his body around and at the same time launched himself up beneath the moose's neck and closed his teeth on the long flap of tufted skin that dangled there.

The bull swiped at him with his antlers but the wolf was too quick. The whole pack seemed to sense that however mighty this animal once had been, age had dulled and weakened him and that tonight was his time to die.

And as if to show the moose he knew this and how reckless he was thus prepared to be, the alpha male let go and came within an inch of being trampled by the heavy front hooves, but instead bounced like an acrobat off the ground to get a better bite. His teeth sank deep into the moose's throat.

The old bull had run more than a mile and was bleeding heavily at both ends, the blood spattering the faces of the young adults as they slashed at his flanks and his rump. Yet on and on he ran.

He swerved sharply now toward the creek and half ran, half fell down a steep bank of willow scrub to the water, dragging his baggage of wolves with him and setting off an avalanche of mud and rocks.

The water near the bank was barely a foot deep and as the moose hit the bed of the creek his lame leg buckled and he went down on his knees, ducking the alpha male beneath him. He quickly found his feet again and when his neck came clear of the water, the alpha male was still fastened there, blood and water sluicing down his fur.

The pups had reached the top of the bank and they stopped there to watch. The old bull turned his head, perhaps to see what had happened to the others when he fell and, seeing her chance, the young female leapt at his face and hooked her teeth to his nose. The moose lifted his head, thrashing her from side to side like wet laundry, but she didn't let go.

All his efforts focused now on the teeth that were sunk into the black, fleshy splay of his nose. He started to stagger blindly toward the far bank, forgetting for a while about shedding or kicking at the other wolves that were locked onto him.

​The mother and the other young adult seemed to sense it and hacked with added vigor at his flanks and his rump then ducked their heads under him to rip at his belly, while the alpha male at his throat tore another gaping hole.

And finally, just as he reached the other bank, the clamor of pain and loss of blood were too much for the old moose and his hind legs collapsed and down he went.

He kicked and struggled for another ten minutes and once during that time managed to get briefly to his feet ad haul his bloody cargo of wolf onto the gravel.

But there he fell again and for the last time.

And the pups who had been watching from the near bank took it as a cue and cautiously made their way down into the water and waded across to join the feast. 

​And only when the old bull had stopped twitching and the rising moon glinted its reflection in the sightless black of his eyes, only then did the alpha male loosen his grip. And he sat up and raised his blood-soaked muzzle to the sky and howled.

And one by one, all his family joined in and lifted their heads and howled with him, both those who had killed and those who had witnessed.

Where once there had been life, now was death. And out of death, thus, was life sustained. And in that bloody compact, both the living and the dead were joined in a loop as ancient and immutable as the moon that arced above them.

Barry Holstun Lopez, in Of Wolves And Men, says, "Man admires the wolf's prowess and indefatigable pursuit, but death itself - blood, gore, and the thought of a wounded animal bellowing in its death throes - makes human beings intensely uncomfortable." But, like it or not, the carnivorous lifestyle is one humans share with wolves. Lopez writes, "We are dealing with a different kind of death from the one men know. When the wolf 'asks' for the life of another animal he is responding to something in that animal that says 'My life is strong. It is worth asking for.' A moose may be biologically constrained to die because he is old or injured, but the choice is there. The death is not tragic. It has dignity."

Lopez elaborates on what Mech has termed the encounter stage of the hunt. Lopez terms the exchange in which the animals appear to lock eyes and make a decision the "conversation of death." He writes, "It is ceremonial exchange, the flesh of the hunted in exchange for respect for its spirit. In this way both animals, not the predator alone, choose for the encounter to end in death. There is, at least, a sacred order in this. There is nobility. And it is something that happens only between the wolf and his major prey species. It produces, for the wolf, sacred meat."

This bull moose on Isle Royale National Park fought off the wolves and survived

Elusive Meals

Photo Source: BBC

The encounter stage of the hunt is the point at which predator and prey confront each other. A prey animal can respond in three ways - by approaching the wolves, standing its ground, or fleeing. Prey seldom approach wolves, although moose, elk and musk oxen are known to stand their ground. When wolves see their prey isn't running, they immediately stop their stalk. Larger prey are usually able to fend off a wolf pack. Smaller prey such as deer or the calves of larger prey are almost defenseless. Mech says, "A deer that stands its ground will do so merely as a stopgap effort; sooner or later it will have to run." Any non-moving creature seems to inhibit the rush response. When prey is facing them, wolves continue their hesitant approach.

Lopez's "conversation of death" falters noticeably with domestic stock. Domestic stock have had the conversation of death bred out of them and consequently, don't know how to encounter wolves. Lopez says, "What happens when a wolf wanders into a flock of sheep and kills twenty or thirty of them in apparent compulsion is perhaps not so much slaughter as a failure on the part of the sheep to communicate anything at all - resistance, mutual respect, appropriateness - to the wolf. The wolf has initiated a sacred ritual and met with ignorance."

This may explain why, hunting in the wild, wolves very rarely surplus kill, but have been known to do so when preying on domestic animals. In doing so wolves encounter a foreign world, one alien to them, and upon entering it, wolves don't know how to respond accordingly. They're at a loss about how to react.

Surplus killing in the wild is only termed as such when the prey isn't eaten. It's rare and according to David Mech, a very confusing aspect of hunting behavior. Mech theorizes that it may be more common when wolves are denning, thereby ensuring a food supply for the new pups, crucial to the long term survival of the pack.

​Barry Holstun Lopez, in Of Wolves And Men, reveals a different but interesting means that wolves use to ensure survival of their pack. He recounts examining a wolf in south central Alaska that had been shot from the air by a tranquilizer gun. Although it was March, typically a lean time of year, Lopez noticed how healthy he looked. Upon opening her mouth he was startled to find that her canines had been worn down to nubs, indicating she must have been at least eight or nine years old. "What meat she was eating she was not killing herself, and among wolves animals that don't contribute to the pack structure pass on. What did she contribute?" he asks. He couldn't shake the idea that what she contributed was "the experience of having done so many things." Consequently, to the pack she was priceless.

David Mech has found evidence, at least with one wolf pack in Minnesota, that wolves are able to ensure survival of their pack by using prey management techniques. That pack varied its killing by hunting in a different part of its territory each year. This allowed prey numbers elsewhere to recover, consequently, ensuring the long term survival of their pack.​​

Hunt with wild wolves near the fictional town of Hope, Montana!

Domestic Stock and Surplus Killing 

Chapter 15 excerpt from The Loop​ by Nicholas Evans

Finding Their Dinner

Nineteen elk killed overnight by wolves in Wyoming

Although wolves gorge if they've gone hungry for several days or a week, they don't overeat. Their ingestion of food is regulated by the liver, which stores excess glucose as glycogen, and by the hunger and satiety centers in the brain. When the liver is topped up with glycogen, a wolf's satiety center is activated and it won't eat. After going hungry for a time, the liver's supply of glycogen is released into the blood as glucose. When the supply is depleted the hunger center is activated.

The wolf's digestive system is so strong that it usually breaks down every bit of protein that's been eaten. Consequently, wolf scats (stool) contain very little fecal matter. The stool, which may be an inch in diameter and three or four inches long, is usually grey or white and contains chips of bone and fur compacted and held together by mucus. Its interior is yellowish and granular and, even in a fresh dropping, is nearly odorless.

Surplus killed sheep by wolves in Montana

Actions and reactions of a hunting wolf pack are dependent on many things, including how hungry they are, which prey species they're hunting, and the reactions of their targeted prey. Prey that runs is usually chased while prey that stands its ground may be able to deter its pursuers. Moose, one of wolves' largest prey species, defend themselves by standing their ground and defying the wolves. Wolves often maneuver around a standing moose, sizing it up and trying to detect weaknesses. Meanwhile, moose usually act belligerent and try to intimidate wolves by charging and striking at them with their hooves. 

It's clear that not only prey species are at risk during confrontations. Moose or musk oxen can easily inflict serious wounds to attacking wolves. Sometimes these wounds are fatal. Cracked ribs, open wounds, and even broke legs are a major risk for wolves. Sometimes, as illustrated by the photo below from David Mech's The Way Of The Wolf, even smaller prey can be a threat. The photo is of a deer-hoof-shaped hole in the skull of an alpha male. That wolf also had two healed broken ribs from a previous encounter. Wolves have been known to be impaled by the sharp horns of bucks. 

Photo Credit: Jeff Turner/River Road Films, Ltd.

Barry Holstun Lopez, in Of Wolves And Men​, confirms that wolves use various strategies when hunting. He says that wolves employ what seems to be a conscious strategy, sending out one or two members of the pack to herd prey into a ambush. Their hunting tactics vary slightly, depending on the species of prey, with wolves adapting primarily to terrain. They prefer to attack sheep from above. They often split up to skirt both sides of an island in a frozen lake and flush caribou or deer towards the island's tip. Where antelope are abundant, wolves lay low in grass, flicking their tails side to side to lure over curious animals. They've been observed herding buffalo onto lake ice where the huge animals lose their footing, a practice they still use to bring down elk.

David Mech, in The Wolf: The Ecology And Behavior Of An Endangered Species, identifies the usual stages of a wolf hunt:

  • Stalk
  • Encounter
  • Rush
  • Chase

Unless wolves locate their prey by chance encounter, their manner of approaching the animal is usually the same each time. Both scenting and tracking allow the sensing of prey over long distances. As wolves close the gap they become excited but remain restrained. They quicken their pace, wag their tails and peer intently ahead. Although anxious to leap forward at full speed, they continue to hold themselves back. This scenario is true of wolves hunting alone or within any size pack. In all cases when the stalk is used, wolves sneak as close to their prey as they can without making it flee. Consequently, they move directly upwind. 

The wolf's diet consists mostly of muscle meat and fatty tissue from various animals. Heart, lung, liver and other internal organs are consumed. Bones are crushed to get at the marrow and bone fragments are eaten as well. Even hair and skin are sometimes eaten. The only part consistently ignored is the stomach and its contents.

Although some vegetable matter are eaten separately, particularly berries, Gray Wolves, Canis lupus, don't digest them very well. Red Wolves, Canis rufus, consume higher proportions of vegetable matter and subsist on smaller game. All wolves eat grass, possibly to scour the digestive tract and remove worms. The grass itself, however, is never digested.

Wolves may eat up to one-fifth of their body weight at a time. On average, they consume five to ten pounds of meat per day, washing it down with large quantities of water. The water prevents uremic poisoning from the high production of urea associated with a meat diet.

Wolves' sources of meat include deer, moose, elk, musk oxen, caribou, reindeer, wild goats and sheep, beaver, porcupines, bison (only in Wood Buffalo National Park), rabbits and hares, ducks, grouse, geese, marmots, snakes, mice, voles and squirrels. Wolves fish as well, eating salmon, arctic grayling and whitefish. Occasionally, they'll eat insects or carrion and they've been known to prey on domestic stock.


Dead sheep being  airlifted in France after being chased off a cliff by wolves

Photo Source: Getty Images

Photo Source:

Ensuring Survival of the Pack 

When wolves attack, especially their larger prey, they usually seize the animal by the rump or the nose. Although history and mythology are full of accounts of wolves hamstringing their prey (slashing the tendons in their hind legs so they can't run), these stories are pure fiction. The actual death of the prey usually results from massive blood loss, shock, or both. Smaller prey, such as arctic hare, die from neck bites which often snap the backbone. 

Humans are both repulsed and fascinated by wolf kills. Fascinated perhaps, because most of us are meat eaters. Like wolves, we are carnivores. Repulsed maybe because, unlike wolves, humans have sanitized and commercialized this process. Family dinner tables are far removed from slaughter houses that regularly and methodically kill, skin, drain, gut and dismember our meals.

The Kill

Collared wolf in Yellowstone National Park

Despite wolves' preference for easier kills, their predation efficiency is surprisingly low. Contrary to popular belief, most prey chased by wolves actually gets away. In one study on Michigan's Isle Royale, only three percent of the moose that were tested (confronted and evaluated) by wolves ended up being killed and eaten. Another study on the same island found that only eight percent of the moose approached and tested were killed by the wolves. A similar study, conducted on Banks Island in the Canadian Arctic, found that only 14 percent of the wolves' musk ox chases were successful.

​The following information, from The Wolf: The Ecology And Behavior Of An Endangered Species by biologist David Mech, summarizes the results of interactions between all or part of a pack of 15-16 wolves and 131 moose on Isle Royale National Park. The yellow numbers indicate those animals actually tested by the wolves. It's easy to see that, contrary to popular myth, wolves have a tough life. They're far removed from their image as blood-thirsty killers haphazardly wiping out anything that moves in their paths.

Of the actual 160 moose judged by Mech to be within range of the hunting wolves:

  • 131 were detected
  • 29 were ignored
  • 11 discovered the wolves first and left
  • 24 ​stood at bay when the wolves approached and were left alone

Of the 96 moose that ran when approached:

  • 43 escaped before the wolves caught up
  • 34 ​outran the wolves or were surrounded but not harmed 
  • 12 made successful defensive stands
  • 7 were attacked
  • 1 was wounded but escaped
  • ​6 were killed

Basically, wolves detect prey in three ways:

  • Scent (most common)
  • Tracking
  • Chance encounters

Wolves are skilled predators, but they are opportunists as well. They prefer to take down the very young, very old, weak or diseased of their prey species. These prey animals,, of course, are the easiest to catch. Although humans, with ideals about fair play, sometimes find this tendency "immoral," it's the way of life in nature and the natural world. Wolves live by natural laws and are guided by instincts bestowed upon them by the process of evolution. Evolutionary and natural laws ensure that only the fit survive.

Adolph Murie, writing in The Wolves Of Mount McKinley, said, "through predation the weak and diseased are eliminated, so that in the long run what seems so harmful may  be beneficial to the species." Biologists call the removal of biologically inferior animals the "sanitation effect."

Weakened animals are easy to spot. They advertise their condition to predators via body stance, uncoordinated or slow movements, the smell of their wounds or infection or some other tangible signal. A study of moose kills by wolves on Michigan's Isle Royale found that most were either very young or very old. None were one to six-year-olds in their prime. The only animal that habitually preys upon prime, mature animals is man.

Once a weak individual is selected by a pack it is usually brought down after a chase. Usually the chases are short. There are exceptions however, and David Mech has recounted knowing of a wolf that chased a deer for a total of 13 miles. In another instance, an observer of a wolf hunt in Alberta's Wood Buffalo National Park saw a wolf pack intermittently attack a bison calf for 11 hours. 

Dangerous Dinner

An immediate rush follows the flight of the prey. It is the most critical stage of the hunt. If the wolves fail to get close enough to their prey during this stage, it runs off at top speed and may never be caught.

The final stage of the hunt is the chase, which is really a continuation of the rush, in which the prey flees and the wolves follow. If wolves catch up, they may attack. If they fall behind, they give up quickly. Although the pursuit sometimes goes on for miles, it usually covers a shorter distance and usually lasts only a few minutes.

A Coordinated Hunt

Digestion and Why Wolves Gorge

Holly Kuchera/Stockphoto