Mary Rochelle / Biology 103 / Bryn Mawr College
Recently there has been a debate between the Russian government and conservationists about the wolf population in the country. The Russian government offers a bounty to anyone who kills a wolf outside of a nature preserve in the country because the wolves have been estimated to number around 44,000. The Russian government contends that this number is just too high and that the wolf population is threatening the balance of nature as a whole. There are proponents of the wolves that argue that humans should just leave nature alone to find its own balance. Despite protests though, over 13,000 wolves were killed last year alone. Mikhail Starodubtsev, a forest ranger in southwest Russia who raises orphaned wolves, says that "he likes wolves but sometimes culling is also needed to keep their numbers down" (1).
The common Gray Wolf, known as Canis lupus, is endangered in some parts of the world, but thriving in Russia. Wolves maintain a pack social structure that has dominant and female and their offspring; meaning that all of the wolves in a pack are generally related (2).
They live in dens during the spring so that they can raise their cubs in a safe environment, with all members of the pack helping in the raising the pups by bringing food to the mother so she does not have to leave the den and by protecting the den from predators (3) .
As wolves are raised, playing serves as an important part of their social development. Wolves have differing personalities just like humans, and their social development can be very important, determining whether or not they will be accepted into the pack or forced to go out on their own as loners (4) . A quicktime movie of two wolves playing with each other can be seen here: (5) .
Wolves are carnivores who hunt in packs, usually preying on large hoofed mammals such as elk, deer, caribou, moose, and sheep. The hunt is usually a silent pursuit of the prey by the entire pack based on the prey's scent. The wolves then surround the animal and attempt to kill it by breaking its neck or biting the jugular, but by all means giving the prey a quick death in order to avoid a struggle. More often than not though, the prey will elude the wolves by picking up on its scent and running away or, in the case of larger mammals like the moose, by fighting off the pack until they give up and search for easier prey. The wolves can go for long periods of time without eating, as long as two weeks, and in the fall and winter, when game is harder to locate and take down the pack usually must go for these long periods. In the summer and spring, there are many small, weak baby mammals to prey upon, but in the fall and winter, the pack must rely on the old and sick animals that are easier to kill. Wolves compensate for these long periods of starvation by being able to eat as much as 20 pounds at one meal (6) .
Wolves have many levels of communication, from vocal communication and body language. The sounds used by wolves to communicate are similar to those used by domestic dogs. The wolves to express friendliness or happiness usually use whimpering or whining and barking is used as a signal for danger or alarm. The trademark sound of the wolf is the howl, and it is usually used to call the pack together, express celebration, or protect their territory. A quicktime audio of wolves howling can be heard here (listen for the pups that are howling at the end!): (7) . Wolves also communicate with body language, using their stance or even facial expressions to express themselves. Wolves usually stand on their hind legs or hold their tails high to express dominance and less dominant wolves will roll onto their backs to express submission to dominant wolves. A tail that is tucked also expresses submission or fear, and a tail that sticks straight out behind the wolf usually shows that a wolf is tense and senses danger. Wolves even wag their tails to communicate playfulness (8) .
Wolves are endangered in some parts of the world now, due to relentless hunting by farmers whose domestic animals are terrorized by starving packs that have been pushed to the edge by human development infringing on their natural habitat. However, in Russia, wolves are far from endangered and so conservationists have a much harder case to make against the killing of wolves. Unfortunately, a government controlled program for killing wolves would be quite expensive, so the legalized slaughtering of the animals is an acceptable substitute for the Russian government. Also, wolf pelts are economically useful as well as the other parts of the animal. Also, the wolf is seen as an evil animal by most stereotypes - from Russian folklore to fairy tales such as "Little Red Riding Hood" (9) .
The different forms of wolf persecution in Russia have ranged from traditional tracking to poison. Wolves have been caught in traps and gunned down from airplanes and snowmobiles. These different forms of extermination may seem to be extreme, but one must keep in mind that the Russian government wants the mass extermination of these animals in order to preserve the other wildlife of the country. Unfortunately though, the advocating of the use of poison has caused a new problem because of the ignorance of the hunters that use it. The poisoning of wolves is covered by strict legal regulations that are almost never followed; the result is the improper disposal of the wolf carcasses and the spreading of poison to other wildlife. Also, the poisoned bait that is set out for the wolves is often ingested by other wildlife, causing further harm to the environment. Cruelly enough, the form of poison baiting most often used is for the hunter to lead a live dog out into the woods, cut the dog open, injecting poison into the dog's wounds and leaving it to die hoping that the smell of fresh blood will attract the wolves (10) .
Though it seems that the killing of wolves cannot be stopped immediately, Russia's methods need to be better controlled. It should be up to a country's experts to determine whether or not the balance of wildlife needs to be augmented, because often human development can throw the balance off and it needs to be corrected. However, the bounty killing of wolves does not seem to be the right method. Wolves are truly beautiful animals and are merely stereotyped as viscous killers; the effects of wolves on domestic livestock are grossly exaggerated compared to the effects of poisoning used to kill wolves. Overall the wolves deserve more respect and Russia should either protect the species or at least show more care in their regulation on the business of exterminating the animals.
1) Wolf cull dilemma for Russia , from CNN.com
2) Wolf Packs , from the Wolf Education and Research Center
3) Learn About Wolves , from the International Wolf Center
4) Wolf Development , from the Wolf Education and Research Center
5) Movie of two wolves playing , from the Wolf Education and Research Center
6 ) Wolf Prey , from the Wolf Education and Research Center
7) Howling Wolves , from the Wolf Education and Research Center
8) Wolf Body Language , from the Wolf Education and Research Center
9) Canis Lupus Lycaon , from the University of Michigan
10) Wolves of the World , from International Wolf Center
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