Common Myths about Wolves: Myth #1, wolves only kill what they eat

This page is a work in progress. Last updated March 26, 2016.

Myth #1: Wolves only kill as much as they need to eat.

An example of how this myth gets perpetrated via the mainstream media, is the recent coverage of a wolf attack that left 19 elk dead but not eaten.

An email forwarded from a first hand observer stated,

This is what happens when we are not allowed to manage. Warning very heartbreaking for our “other” wildlife.

We had 18 elk slaughtered by wolves on our [Bondurant, Wyoming] feedgrounds in one night this week. 16 were calves that were not eaten at all. Killed and left for dead. The other were two pregnant cow elk. The wolves ripped the fetuses from the elk most likely from signs while they were still alive, to later die. Again they did not eat the cows. This makes nearly 70 elk slaughtered by wolves on our feedgrounds alone this winter. That doesn’t include anything off the feedgrounds. We must use common sense, decency and real conversations to regulate this issue.


State and federal wildlife officials were quick to tell  the mainstream urban media that wolves rarely kill for sport.

An Idaho News outlet, County 10, reported:

“It’s not unusual for wolves to kill one or two elk a night, but to have 19 killed in one night “is fairly rare,” John Lund of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department told County 10.

“A lot of people call it surplus killing,” Lund told the outlet. “It has been observed on other occasions, just not very often…

…A surplus killing is when an animal kills more of its prey than it can eat and then abandons the surplus.

For the most part, wolves do not “kill for sport,” Mike Jimenez, the Northern Rocky Mountain Wolf Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told County 10.”

Historically, however, senior federal wildlife officials told a  different story about surplus killing.

The two quotes below came from senior U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists. The first quote is from Vernon Bailey,  after whom the Mexican wolf is named. The second is from Stanley Young and Edward Goldman, who in 1944 published a two-volume, 636-page study that to this day is widely accepted as the definitive authority on everything about North American wolves except their DNA.

“The ranchmen in the wolf country maintain that a ‘critter ‘ even slightly bitten by a wolf will die of blood poisoning, and many detailed instances seem fully to substantiate this. More cattle are therefore killed than are eaten. Evidently the wolves prefer freshly killed beef. ” -Vernon Bailey, Wolves in Relation to Stock, Game and the Forest Reserves. United States Forest Service Bulletin No. 72, 1907, p.16, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C.

“The apparently wanton killing of more sheep or other livestock than needed by them for food considered so outrageous by the stock owner, apparently is to the wolf but a form of sport. Mass killings of sheep or cattle by wolves appears to result from sheer physical exuberance of this predator in the height of vigor, and becomes a form of recreation.

Sheffy referred to this in his article on the lobo, saying,   ‘ . . .They ate nothing but fresh, fat meats and only that which they killed themselves. They never returned to a carcass for a second meal, and, unless they were very hungry, they never ate more than the ham and loins and the kidney fat of the stock which they killed . . . They would even kill calves for the sport of it, this being one of their forms of play. . . .’  (Sheffy, L.F., 1929:94)”

-Young & Goldman, The Wolves of North America, p. 104, Dover Publications Inc. NY, 1944, LCCN 64-15510.

Numerous incidents of “excessive killing” (where kills are partially consumed) and “surplus killing” (nearly nothing is eaten)  by wolves have been documented in recent years.

Canadian wildlife officials reported in 1985,

We searched for newborn calf carcasses of migratory barren-ground caribou (Rangifer tarandus graenlandicus)in June 1982 in the Northwest Territories. On 17 June, we found 34 calves killed by wolves (Canis lupus), clumped in a 3-km [sq.] area. The calves had been killed apparently within minutes of each other and about 24 h before being found. Wolves had not fed on 17 of the carcasses and had only partially eaten the other 17. Ground observations illustrate the speed of and efficiency with which wolves can kill calves: . . .

… observations confirm that single wolves are able to kill newborn caribou calves easily and at high rates. In 6 min of hunting activity on 17 June 1982, the single wolf killed three calves.… On 19 June 1981, the single wolf took at least three calves, we believe four, during 28 min of hunting activity; … Any application of these rates to the daily hunting and killing activities of single wolves would predict kills in excess of the wolf’s need for short-term sustenance. A single wolf can meet its maintenance requirements on 1 calf/day (Mech 1970; Kuyt (1972).…

…Surplus killing has been reported for (i) wolves killing caribou under deep snow conditions (Eide and Ballard 1982), (ii) wolves killing reindeer (R. t. tarandus) during a heavy snowstorm (Bjarvall and Nilsson 1976), (iii) wolves killing white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) in deep snow (Mech et al. 1971), …The intact caribou calves that we examined were in good physical condition with traces of fat on their hearts and kidneys and were of viable body weights. This also appeared true for the calves that had been fed on but less definitive because of the condition of the carcasses. …

…[First hand, previously described] observations confirm that single wolves are able to kill newborn caribou calves easily and at high rates. In 6 min of hunting activity on 17 June 1982, the single wolf killed three calves. The actual time between the first and third kills was, however, only 3 min (1 calf/min).…

(MILLER, F. L., A. GUNN, and E. BROUGHTON. 1985. Surplus killing as exemplified by wolf predation on newborn caribou. Can. J. Zool. 63: 295-300. )

Other recent incidents of surplus killing by wolves:

  • Wolves killed 120 male sheep overnight at the Rebish/Konen Livestock Ranch south of Dillon, Montana in August 2009.
  • Two wolves killed ran 176 sheep to death overnight on a ranch near Idaho Falls, Idaho in August 2013, and partially consumed only one.
  • The High County News reported in the autumn of 2004,
    “During the night of June 29, the nine wolves in the Cook pack took part in what biologists call a “surplus killing” north of McCall. They killed 70 sheep, far more than they could eat. In all, the pack — Idaho’s largest — reportedly killed more than 190 sheep the past two summers.”
    The pack was exterminated as a result, which may explain why large, overnight kills by wolves are not reported much more frequently.