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Wolves in Winter

11/30/2017 20:38 ● Published by Sandy Kauten

Winter in our part of the world can be long, cold, and hard for wildlife. Animals handle the seasonal challenges in different ways: Bears fatten up and hibernate, geese take flight and migrate, and squirrels ride it out while surviving on food they’ve stored away during the summer.

Not every animal has it hard, though. Winter is prime time for one of North America’s most iconic animals, the grey wolf.

As temperatures fall, wolves grow thick, warm coats to combat the chill of coming winds. To preserve its body heat, a wolf can lie curled with its tail over its snout to filter and catch its warm breath. They can also sleep close together, taking in the collective warmth of their pack mates.

A pack of grey wolves is made up of a parent couple and their pups from the past 2 to 3 years. Sometimes other young, unrelated wolves will join them. By winter, the current year’s pups are nearly full grown and already have some hunting experience. They need all the hunting power they can get, as their prey animals spread out widely in search of their own sustenance.

Wolves feed mainly on ungulates—large, hooved animals such as moose, deer, elk, and caribou. In winter, ungulates have fewer food sources, so they are weaker than in the warmer months. Their hooves also make it difficult to travel through deep snow. This is where wolves have a great hunting advantage: their paws spread out and act like snowshoes on the surface of ice and snow. They can usually outrun their weakened prey with ease.

Late winter to early spring is mating season for wolves. The mating pair will dig out a den where the mother will give birth after just 63 days of gestation. By spring, the pups are ready to get out of the den and explore the world.

Grey wolves are not as prevalent as they once were. Some estimates say they occupy only 10% of their original territory in the United States. The species is currently state- or federally- protected across most of the country.

Oregon wolves have faced major challenges over the last 150 years. Beginning in 1843, Oregon leaders offered hunting bounties as part of an effort to eradicate wolves from the territory. A century later, eradication was complete, and wolves weren’t spotted in Oregon for over fifty years.

In the late 1990s, wolves started to venture back into their Oregon habitats, and the state’s wolf population has been slowly increasing ever since. At the end of 2016, the estimated minimum population size was 112 wolves (that’s up from just 14 in 2009).

Wolves are top-level predators in a food chain. Without them, entire ecosystems can go out of balance. Want to learn more about wolves and how they help keep ecosystems healthy? Check out Wolves and Wild Lands in the 21st Century, an exhibit now on view at the Museum of Natural and Cultural History.

You can also head to the museum on Friday, December 15 for Howl at the Moon! Winter Solstice Celebration. From 5:00 to 8:00 p.m., live music, crafts, and hands-on activities guarantee a howlin’ good time for the whole family! Find out more at natural-history.uoregon.edu.

The Museum of Natural and Cultural History is located at 1680 E. 15th Avenue, on the UO campus. Museum hours are Tuesday through Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Visit us online at natural-history.uoregon.edu.  

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