Accounts from trappers and hunting outfitters have confirmed that wolves eat bears. Still, it’s difficult to quantify how often this occurs because, so far, the wildlife community lacks research and no public studies have been published on the matter.
What is documented, however, is the effect a growing wolf population has had on deer herds. No doubt there are a lot of teeth in the woods and wolves have significantly reduced deer numbers in many areas. What’s talked about far less is the impact this predator is having on other animals. The black bear is a prime example.
Many bear hunters, guides and outfitters are getting a wake-up as they discover thinning deer populations are impacting black bear numbers. With fewer deer to target, wolves are eating bears.
In Minnesota, I have seen active bear baits go completely dead when wolves move into the area. Wolves will eat some types of bear bait, but that’s not the real reason they hang around. Wolves eat bears. What better place to find a bear than the high-percentage area in the vicinity of a bear bait?
On the first day of my bear hunt in Ontario a few years ago, my 18-year-old son Dawson sat in a stand beside me as we watched a medium-sized bear feed at the bait. Dawson was filming the hunt for me, as he often did. The bear was not one I would consider shooting on the first day of the hunt. Suddenly, the bear stood up and looked into the bush, then spun and rocketed out of the area as if shot out of a canon.
Dawson reached for and turned on the camera. He’s filmed enough bear hunts to know that when a small bear leaves in a hurry, there’s a good chance a bigger bear is about to make an appearance. But I was conflicted as I watched the bear streak away. I’d seen a lot of bears around baits and never had seen one leave in such a state of total panic.
A moment later, the issue came into clear focus. A timber wolf trotted in and looked over the area. He sniffed around, made a half circle around the bait site, then left on the trail of that 200-pound bear.
I have seen wolf scat full of bear fur on several occasions. But in speaking with biologists, none could verify how common it is for wolves to kill and eat bears. Most biologists are reluctant to say anything that would cast wolves in a bad light. Considering the emotionally-charged political climate surrounding wolves, many people within state game departments where wolf populations are at issue seem to avoid the subject.
Woodsmen, trappers, hunters and outfitters in areas with high bear-wolf interactions aren’t so inhibited. Mike Foss, a long-time bear hunting outfitter in northern Wisconsin, is frustrated by the persistent lack of understanding. He has come across remains of bears killed by wolves in forests and believes the problem is increasing.
“Not only is our deer population having a difficult time rebounding from dismal numbers caused in part by wolf predation over the past decade,” he said, “but also some bear guides, including me, believe our great bear population is literally under attack. Specifically, cubs and younger, immature bears.”
He speculates much of the predation takes place in the winter when wolves pull bears out of their dens and eat them. He cites a fellow guide who found evidence of wolf predation at three bear dens late last winter.
And he’s not alone. Tom Ainsworth, a long-time bear outfitter in the Duck Mountains of western Manitoba, says it’s common in his area as well. He says wolves will kill bears whenever they have the right opportunity. One of his guides is a veteran wolf trapper who claims to have come across many cases where wolves have caught bears in their dens, drug them out and killed them. Wolves also will target cubs all year whenever they are far enough from a climbable tree.
In that part of Manitoba, trappers and hunters target wolves all winter. This helps keep the problem somewhat under control. But in Wisconsin the lack of opportunities to control wolf populations, along with mild winters, has created a perfect storm for high predation rates.
There are more cameras in the woods than at any time in the past, and instances of interactions between bears and wolves are on the rise. Phones with cameras have helped documentation of wolf predation on bears. Blogs, social media and YouTube have offer evidence of bears being pulled from the dens and eaten by wolves.
But are the cameras just catching what has been common all along, or are the numbers of bears being killed by wolves on the rise? Foss believes wolves are targeting bears more frequently.
“Is there now such a predator-prey imbalance — not helped by federal judicial protection of the wolf — that deer numbers can’t recover and other prey, including the black bear, is providing an alternative food source?” Foss asks. “I believe that is probable.”
One of the most-simple solutions, of course, would be to kill more wolves and bring their population into balance. But it’s not that easy. In the western United States that move is underway as wolf hunting is growing. But in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan, the states’ ability to manage wolf populations has been hampered by court decisions that allow wolves to remain protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
The ESA was designed to bring threatened species back from the brink of extinction. It has worked with some animals, including the wolf and bald eagle. Both are perfect examples of how the ESA can be effective. However, animal extremists have been accused of using the ESA as a political weapon.
In areas of Canada where hunting and trapping of wolves is legal, residents target them for their fur, as trophies and as a way to give the prey species some much-needed relief. A growing number of people from the states are interested in hunting wolves. But the cost and success rates have been a hindrance. Wolf pelts are at their most impressive in the early winter, and at that time a bunch of other hunting seasons compete for their attention.
John Palson, my outfitter on that Ontario baited bear hunt, is working to see the price of nonresident wolf tags lowered. He believes this could give incentive to bear hunters to purchase an additional wolf tag, so it’s in their pockets when hunting bear. But it remains to be seen how many bear hunters will shoot a wolf during August and September bear seasons when their pelt is substandard.
Another option would be for outfitters to offer wolf hunts later in autumn when wolf skins are more desirable for mounts and rugs. Some already do that. The wolves can be hunted at the bear bait sites by using meat scraps, roadkill or game animal bones and trimmings after the bear hunters are gone, then placing hunters at those locations for a wolf hunt. Others will chop a hole in a frozen lake within shooting distance of a blind on shore, then dump in butcher trimmings. As the trimmings freeze into the surface of the lake, the wolves claw and chew at them. The time it takes the wolves to clean up the goodies offers multiple opportunities for hunters to make a kill.
Reducing wolf numbers seems to be the key but at the present time it can’t be done in many problem areas. There are no easy answers. Foss believes hunting and human interaction are keys to giving bears a much-needed break.
“Wolves are still present in the agriculture lands, but they have much more human contact and a better deer population to sustain them over the winter months — leaving the slumbering bears alone to awaken to another spring,” he said. “The wolf knows only that eating means survival. Without the proper balance of predator and prey, we are in trouble.”