Wolves usually avoid contact with people. Like any wild animal, however, wolves can be dangerous if cornered, injured or sick, or habituated to people through activities such as feeding. With large carnivores, it is imperative for people to avoid actions that encourage these animals to get cozy near people, or to become reliant on food handouts. Below are guidelines to reduce the chance of wolf habituation and conflict while living in and visiting wolf country. Many of these suggestions will also reduce conflicts with other large carnivores, such as bears.
Living & Working in Wolf Country
Wolves occasionally come close to human dwellings or worksites, often in search of prey and, normally, they move on. Occasionally, humans intentionally or accidentally habituate wolves, a situation that can lead to the death of the wolf or wolves. The following guidelines can help prevent habituation of wolves near homes or worksites.
- Never intentionally feed wolves
- Avoid any practices that acclimate wolves to people. Improper disposal of household refuse, especially meat scraps, may attract wolves. Dispose of food scraps and garbage in cans with secure lids or pack the refuse out of the area to a proper disposal site.
- Hang suet feeders at least 7 feet above the surface of the ground or snow.
- Motion sensor lights may help keep wolves away from dwellings.
Always remain aware of wolf sign near your home or work area. Report consistent and close wolf sign, or incidents of bold wolves to Colorado Parks & Wildlife.
Companion Animals in Wolf Country
To protect both pets and wildlife, owners should always monitor their animal companions in areas where they may encounter wildlife. Unsupervised dogs that stray from their owner’s homes into wolf territories face grave risk. Wolves may treat dogs as interlopers on their territories and attack and kill or injure them, especially if the wolves have pups nearby.
Do not leave pet food outdoors where it may be accessible to a wolf or other predators. Wolves quickly become acclimated to a consistent food source such as this and may eventually injure or kill pets.
- If you have seen wolves near your home, confine pets in pens or indoors until wolves are no longer present. Secure other domestic animals such as rabbits and chickens when wolves are in the area.
- If you are hiking or walking with your dog, do not let it wander out of your sight or voice control—better still, keep it leashed.
- If you are visiting in wolf country, don’t leave your dog unattended or chained outside at a cabin or campsite.
Carry Bear Spray (capsaicin)! If a wolf (or bear) pursues your dog, use the spray to defend your dog by deterring the attack. If your dog is actively being attacked, don’t physically intervene! Instead, use Bear Spray, which contains a strongly pressurized volume of pepper, or capsaicin compounds, to spray them both and break up the altercation. Your dog (and the attacking animal) will need some recovery time, but the effects of Bear Spray are non-lethal and temporary. Use of the spray when your animal is under attack can save it and the wolf or bear from life-threatening injury.
Special Care for Dogs in Wolf Country
Unless you plan to breed your dog, have it sterilized. Female dogs in heat may attract wolves, and female wolves can cause intact male dogs to wander away from safety in search of a casual hook-up. There’s a reason Tinder® has separate apps for dogs and wolves. 😉
Keeping wolves and dogs apart is also important to prevent interbreeding. Wolf-dog hybrids are detrimental to the genetic health of wild wolves, and wolf-dog hybrids do not make good pets! If you are breeding dogs, take extra precaution to keep the dogs safe.
Keep female dogs indoors or kenneled when in heat and always keep intact male dogs in a safe enclosure.
- Provide indoor shelter options for animals during hours of darkness.
- Provide chain-link fences around dog yards and overwinter livestock areas.
- Consider electric fences around dog yards and livestock areas.
- Install lights/motion detectors around dog yards and livestock areas.
- Clear brush to provide a perimeter clear of concealing vegetation around dog yards or livestock areas.
- Keep noisemakers on hand to haze away coyotes, wolves, or bears that venture near your home or dog/livestock enclosure.
- Keep all animal feed in animal-proof containers or stored in sturdy sheds or barns.
Hunting in Wolf Country
Some hunters may unknowingly place themselves in compromising situations while pursuing their prey. Hunters should follow these commonsense guidelines:
- Do not cover yourself with elk or deer scent. Wolves use their nose to locate prey, so this isn’t rocket science.
- Should you be lucky enough to see a wolf or wolves, make your presence known if they are approaching too close (they probably haven’t noticed you yet).
- Do not clean wild game and fish in heavily used areas such as campgrounds and hunting access points. Always dispose of wild animal remains properly.
- Be sure that you can identify the difference between a small wolf and a large coyote.
Elk are the primary prey of gray wolves in the Rocky Mountains, but the impact of wolves on the elk population is not significant. Today the region has more elk (and deer) and wolves than in the past 50 years!
Camping & Recreating in Wolf Country
Once Colorado Parks & Wildlife reintroduces wolves to western Colorado (as required by state law) and the population reaches a self-sustaining level, recreational users of our wild lands are more likely to encounter wolves. Still, seeing a wolf is likely to be a rare and gratifying experience for most people. You can help keep wolves safe and wild by following some simple rules when recreating by following a few simple rules:
- Seeing a wolf at close range in the wild is a very rare occurrence. Count your blessings and stay calm if it happens—you’ll have a great story to tell your family and friends. The wolf will most likely slip away soon after it senses your proximity.
- Know how to identify wolf sign; educate yourself about wolves prior to hiking in wolf country.
- Cook, wash dishes and store food away from sleeping areas.
- Pack out or dispose of garbage and leftover food properly.
- Suspend or pack food, toiletries and garbage out of reach of any wildlife.
- Keep pets near you at all times.
- Distinguishing between Wolves, Coyotes, and Dogs
Size is a key difference between coyotes and wolves. Coyotes range from 3.5 to 4.5 feet long, 20-22 inches high at the shoulder and 20 to 50 pounds. This is about half the size of a wolf. Coyotes have gray or reddish brown fur with rusty-colored legs, feet, and ears, and whitish fur on the throat and belly. Their ears are pointed and relatively long, and the muzzle is pointed and petite. Coyotes carry their tail held below the back line. The tail is less than 18 inches long and may or may not have a black tip.
In contrast, wolves have many color variations from nearly coal black to gray to buff-colored tans grizzled with gray and sometimes even pale white and gray. Their ears are rounded and relatively short, and the muzzle is large and blocky. Wolves typically hold their tail straight out from the body or down. Wolves stand 28-32 inches at the shoulder and weigh 50 to 100 pounds. The tail is black tipped and over 18 inches long.
Scat – Wolf droppings, or scat, are normally one inch to an inch and one half in diameter with tapered ends. Coyote scat is typically less than one inch in diameter. Wolf scat usually contains deer or elk hair and shards of bones. Wolf “meat scats,” deposited after a fresh kill, are loose, black, tar-like and pungent.
Tracks – Coyote track size is about two and one-half inches long and two inches wide. A wolf track is about four inches long and three and one-half inches wide. Dog tracks vary, with some being as large as, or larger than, wolf tracks. Wolves and other wild canids usually place their hind foot in the track left by the front foot, whereas a dog’s front and hind foot tracks rarely overlap each other. Wolves usually travel in a more “business like” straight line, while dogs meander back and forth. The distance between one set of wolf tracks and the next is usually greater than 26 inches and often over 30 inches. Wolves typically have narrow chests, and their tracks appear almost in a straight line. A pack of wolves traveling together in snow often walk directly in each other’s tracks so that there appears to be only one animal.
Etiquette for Wolf Encounters
If you want to view wildlife, do it on their terms. Watch from a respectful distance; use binoculars or a spotting scope. Learn about wildlife behavior. You should aim to never change an animal’s natural behavior. Use self-restraint so that wildlife can continue to live freely.
- Do not approach wolves while on foot or in/on a vehicle.
- Do not allow a wolf to approach any closer than 300 feet.
- Do not entice them to come closer with food or by howling.
- Leave room for the wolf to escape your presence.
- When photographing wolves, do not use bait at blind sights.
- Do not leave your vehicle to pursue a wolf.
Wolves are shy animals, but are also very curious by nature. It is not unusual for a wolf to “stand its ground” when it sees a human. This is not a show of aggression, but rather curiosity. There are many stories of wolves actually approaching humans, but rarely with aggression. Attacks by wolves on humans are rare. If a wolf acts aggressively (growls or snarls) or fearlessly (approaches humans at a close distance without fear) take the following actions:
- Do not run—predators instinctively chase running animals.
- Raise your arms and wave them in the air to make yourself look larger.
- Back away slowly; do not turn your back on the wolf.
- Make noise and throw objects at the wolf.
Report wolf conflicts immediately to Colorado Parks & Wildlife.
Adapted from a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Fact Sheet.
Header Photo by Dave Jones. Used with permission, all rights reserved.