Wolves, © Tim Springer

Caching In On Leftovers

For Wolf Awareness Week 2012, we’re sharing some of our favorite facts about wolves. Help us spread the word by sharing the image below on Facebook.

Wolves are capable of consuming an incredible amount of meat—up to 20 pounds in a single sitting—and sometimes they do. But they don’t always clean their plate, so to speak. Much of the time, wolves will save some for later by “caching” part of their bounty in case food becomes scarce. According to the Wolf Education & Research Center, wolves will cache as little as a single piece up to 15 pounds of meat from any given meal by burying it in the dirt. Doing so prevents ravens and other scavengers from stealing the surplus so that wolves can return and feed on it later.

Wolves hunt two bull elk in Yellowstone. Photo courtesy of the U.S. National Park Service.

Wolves are known for their skilled hunting of larger prey, but they’re also opportunistic scavengers. It takes a lot less effort for a wolf to feast on the cached remains of a dead animal than it does to try to take down a live one that’s five to ten times its size. Further, food is often scarce during certain times of the year and in certain places, so it pays to keep a stash hidden for those lean times. If you’ve ever seen a dog burying a bone in the backyard, they’re following the same instinctual behavior from their canid ancestors, the wolves.

Because of their incredible sense of smell, wolves can easily detect old meat that’s been buried in order to locate their food caches. Unfortunately, this behavior can also get them into trouble. Livestock producers will often maintain open carcass pits of animals that die from a variety of causes—bad weather, disease, birthing complications, fatal injuries—and these pits can attract wolves from miles away. Some pits are fenced off or buried deep underground, but many of them are not protected at all. Once a wolf gets wind of an open carcass pit, they will often return again and again, treating it as their own personal food cache. As a result, ranchers greatly increase the likelihood that wolves will eventually come into conflict with any other livestock using the area.

One of the most important wolf coexistence strategies Defenders employs is helping ranchers identify major attractants like carcass pits and cleaning them up. By properly disposing of dead animals off-site or burying them deeper underground, ranchers can greatly reduce the chances of wolves becoming routine visitors to their livestock operation. These actions have been critically important in the Northern Rockies and adjacent states like Oregon and California where wolves have only recently returned. We’ve been able to help ranchers avoid disaster by cleaning up old carcass pits before wolves discover them, increasing the odds that wolves can share the landscape with livestock without turning them into dinner.

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