"We scarely see a gang of buffaloe without observing a psrsel of those faithfull shepherds on their skirts in readiness to take care of the maimed wounded. The large wolf never barks, but howls as those of the atlantic states do." -- Meriwether Lewis
Early on in their travels with the Corps of Discovery, as they headed to the Platte River, passing big bluestem meadows and cottonwoods along the riverbanks, brothers Rueben and Joseph Field captured a wolf cub. They tied it up, planning to make it a pet. It turned out to be easier to catch a wolf than to keep one. It quickly gnawed its way free and scampered back into the wild.
Lewis and Clark called the gray wolf the "large wolf" to distinguish it from the smaller coyotes, which they dubbed the "prairie wolf."
Wolves were familiar from the East, but Lewis and Clark discovered a subspecies, the plains gray wolf, or Canis lupus nubilus. As usual, Lewis offered detailed observations, noting how a pack would isolate an antelope from the herd so they could chase it down. Clark wrote, "The large Wolves are very numerous," and they saw them throughout the western part of their trip, feeding on bison and stalking wild turkeys. They heard them howling through the night.
Few sounds convey "wilderness" as clearly as a wolf's howl. A technique adapted for communication over distances, a howl can travel up to six miles. Serving as a rallying cry before the hunt or a marker of territory boundaries, the howl is indispensable for these social, yet far-roaming animals. A pack howling together, finding different ranges and patterns, can sound much larger than it is, warning off a competing group.
Dominating the pack are one male and one female. Generally this pair is the only one to breed, and the rest of the pack, if it's a small one, is made up of their offspring. Pack size depends on prey: Only 7 wolves might be needed if dinner is deer, while 20 might be necessary to hunt moose.
When a pack takes down an elk or deer, it frequently feeds the whole forest. Ravens trail wolves to their prey, often feasting alongside them. Vultures circle overhead, waiting for an opening. Grizzly bears also take a turn. As Lewis and Clark witnessed with bison herds, wolves serve as an important check on prey populations, keeping them from growing too large. At the time wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995, the elk had grown so numerous and hungry they halted the growth of aspen forests by eating the young shoots. Biologists hope the wolves will help reverse these trends.