It’s easy to take for granted that wolves once roamed the open prairies, until human activity pushed them out. Thanks to the efforts of many, they’re on the move. Join photographer David C. Olson as he tracks these elusive, oft-maligned yet fantastically beautiful creatures in the wilds of North America.
There are few large mammals in North America that symbolize the wilderness and an intact ecosystem as much as the mountain lion, grizzly bear and wolf. Many people love wolves and what they bring to wild places. There are also many who view the wolf as competition for natural resources.
For me, the wolf has been an embodiment of the wilderness. Over the past 10 years, I have devoted my photography expeditions to six states and two countries as I document and photograph the gray wolf. During this time, I have worked with some of the top wolf biologists to collect images for educational books and magazines.
I am always delighted to see and photograph this canine. It’s highly intelligent and has a strong family bond, just like the domestic dogs we love so much. Early man had relationships with wolves, and so began the friendship.
The wolf and early American Indians had a special relationship, too. The wolf was regarded as a spirit, teacher and brother. The spirit of the wolf today is still strong in many cultures around the world.
Back in the 1940s, the wolf was eliminated in most regions of North America as a result of decades of wrongful persecution. It took over 40 years before we started restoring the wolf back to some of its native regions. The process is still ongoing.
There are three types of wolves you’ll find in North America: the Gray Wolf, Red Wolf and Arctic Wolf. The Gray Wolf (canus lupus) is what you’ll find in Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin and occasionally in Illinois.
Wolves are Holarctic, which means they live in the Northern Hemisphere above 30 degrees north latitude. Wolves are a thick-furred animal. Just the tips of the noses and the pads on their feet are exposed.
Wolves in the Midwest are smaller then their Alaskan or Canadian cousins. In general, adult wolves in the lower 48 states weigh between 80 and 100 pounds. The far northern wolves can weigh between 100 pounds and 130 pounds. The largest wolf ever recorded weighed in at 175 pounds. It was captured in Alaska, in 1939.
The Gray Wolf stands at 33 to 36 inches at the shoulders and 50 to 60 inches from snout to tail. The tail is one-third the length of the head and body.
In our region, the wolf is mistaken for a coyote, which is only one-quarter to one-half the weight of the wolf. Coyotes, by comparison, are only about 24 inches high and 36 to 40 inches long.
A wolf’s life is rough, to say the least. Diseases and dynamics of the pack, along with the hazards of taking down large prey, can reduce a wolf’s life expectancy. Of course, man also has a significant impact on the wolf’s habitat. Human contact, trapping, hunting, poisoning and car collisions all attribute to lower life expectancy when wolves live near humans. Wolves in the wild live about four to seven years.
Gray Wolves and Timber Wolves feed mainly on deer, beavers, rabbits, snowshoe hares and other small mammals, though they’re also known to catch fish, as well. Wolves typically feed on sick, weak or older animals, a habit that actually helps the overall health of their prey because it removes unhealthy animals from the herd. Last year, vehicles in Wisconsin killed 13 times more deer than all of the wolves in the state, combined.
There’s a longstanding notion that wolves are bloodthirsty predators, but this is not true. According to Wisconsin state records, there has never been a documented attack of a wolf on a human in modern history. The reality is the wolf only makes a kill to survive and feed its family. Sometimes, it can go days without making a kill or eating.
I have witnessed these bonds and the caring that is evident in the lives of a wolf. They live in packs led by an alpha female and alpha male. They are usually mature and experienced wolves that must make great decisions for the pack – kind of like our parents making the right choices for our families.
Wolf breeding in North America begins in February. Pups are born in spring 62 to 63 days later.
All pack members help to raise the pups, thus making the bond of the pack even richer. Somewhere between the ages of 2 and 5 years old, the young will disperse from the pack. The timing all depends on the quality and quantity of food, pack temperament, and characteristics of the young. When a wolf is dispersed from a pack it may roam up to 100 miles before it finds or starts another pack. These are the types of sightings we are seeing in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois.
In many states where hunting or trapping wolves is legal, if the alpha male or female is killed, the young pack members will be without family leaders. This is when the most trouble is seen in wolf packs, because it forces young, inexperienced wolves to look for easy prey.
Science has found that hunting wolves only disperses them into more trouble. Dispersing wolves will search for a mate, meaning they will roam and roam in search of another wolf. When a wolf wanders in our region, there are so few wolves around that it may never find a mate, and it’s highly likely to die while searching through unfamiliar lands.
Perhaps my most memorable wolf encounter happened in Jasper National Park, in Alberta, Canada, in 2004. My wife, Adrienne, and I were approached by a group of three wolves. We then crossed paths with three other pack members on our return to camp. A black wolf and a white wolf crossed our path in the deep forest. It was truly a spiritual experience as we looked into the eyes of these wild wolves.
In my photographic journeys to document wolf behavior, I have witnessed pups howling for the first time, I’ve seen the excitement of the pack when pups were born, and I’ve come to understand the strategic abilities and physical traits they use in everyday life. I have seen them express many emotions: happiness, playfulness, pain, rejection, love. Many of the same emotions we feel.
This is why so many of us love the wolf and its domesticated canine, the one that’s probably lying at your side right now. It is wonderful to know that we can travel a few hundred miles north of home and have the possibility of seeing or hearing the howling voice of North America’s symbols of the canine wild.
As humans, we have the responsibilities of preserving wild ecosystems and helping to protect a place for the wolf and the many species that benefit from their activity. My experiences with wolves have been life-changing encounters, images and moments I will share with others through photography.
Never have I felt threatened – only more enlightened and privileged to share the world with this amazing creature.
See more of my photography of wolves online at davidolsonphoto.com.
About David Olson
Being skilled in one field of the profession is good. But very few photographers can be prolific in so many aspects of professional photography like David C. Olson, his wife Adrienne Olson, and the staff at Olson Photography in Rockford.
The Olsons’ team specializes in contemporary, high-end studio photography for businesses, schools, weddings, portraits and more. When David isn’t in the studio, he can be found in some of North America’s wildest locations, photographing elusive creatures and gorgeous landscapes. His images of our natural world have been seen worldwide in books, calendars, National Wildlife Federation and National Geographic. With more than 25 years behind the camera lens, degrees in photography from the Colorado Institute of Art, and research in animal studies, David maintains a diverse portfolio of people’s lives and memories, as well as moments in nature very rarely seen.
“Each day, I wake up knowing there are images that need to be created,” he says. “I would like my images to provoke a relaxing and healing feeling for the people who view them.”
For more on David Olson, check out davidolsonphoto.com.