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Expert dispels 5 common wolf myths ahead of International Wolf Symposium

Dr. L. David Mech in his office in the Gabbert Raptor Center on the University of Minnesota's St. Paul campus on Monday, Oct. 8, 2018, where he was preparing for the International Wolf Symposium. Deanna Weniger / St. Paul Pioneer Press1 / 2
A sample of the ten books written by Dr. L. David Mech lay scattered on his desk in his office. Deanna Weniger / St. Paul Pioneer Press2 / 2

ST. PAUL — L. David Mech is the alpha male of the wolf world.

That is, if such a thing existed.

Mech, 81, of St. Paul, has spent about 60 years researching wolves and is the keynote speaker for the International Wolf Symposium, which starts Thursday and runs through Sunday in Minneapolis.

Sixty years is sufficient time to form a theory, study it long enough to disprove it and have a YouTube show do a skit about it, which is what happened with the alpha wolf idea.

Mech, pronounced "meech", wrote a book in 1970 called "The Wolf," which theorized that the dominant wolf in a pack earned his place by being the most aggressive. Later, he realized the idea was not entirely accurate, as the show "Adam Ruins Everything" explained using a cartoon version of Mech.

For Mech's keynote address, he will speak on "Wolf Facts, Fallacies, Fables and Fake News." He gave the St. Paul Pioneer Press a sneak peek of his presentation. Here are five fallacies most people believe about wolf life.

Wolves are extremely dangerous to people

"While there is some truth to that, we need to put that into perspective. In North America, in the last 60 years or so, there have been two cases where wolves have killed people. So, how dangerous really is that?

"Potentially they're dangerous, like potentially bears are dangerous, but bears don't kill that many people. It's sort of the same with wolves. They've gotten kind of a bum rap in that respect. Some people are afraid to go into the woods because there's wolves there. You can see that that's not really a rational fear."

Wolves kill for sport

"Ordinarily it's hard for wolves to catch a deer. They have to work hard for it. Deer are just not that easy to kill except when they are very weak in the spring and they're ready to die anyway. They might kill two, three or four or five at a time in cases like that.

"They might eat some from one and something from a second one, but after they're filled, they go off to rest. If somebody comes upon a scene like that, they see all these deer killed and not all fully eaten, that makes them think wolves kill for sport.

"There are some times that they can kill more than they can eat at that minute. If they were left alone entirely, they would keep coming back to eat them."

Wolves are powerful enough to kill whatever they want

"A lot of people think that because wolves live in a pack they can kill just about anything they want. The deer are fleet and very wary. It's hard for wolves to kill them. We've found there are conditions that predispose prey animals to be killed by wolves: weakness due to starvation; sickness like arthritis, tapeworm cysts and tick diseases; old age; inexperienced young; and blood conditions.

"They do tend to take the old, the young, the sick and the weak. That's the true part of it. The fallacy of it is that they can kill anything they want."

Wolves need wilderness to survive

"The fallacy is that people think that wolves need to have wilderness to live. If you protect wolves, they can live anywhere. All they need is something to eat, just like dogs. They can eat things right outside our back door.

"We killed them everywhere except the wilderness. They lived places like this, but they caused too much trouble, so we poisoned them out. The only ones left were the ones out in the wilderness that were harder to reach, which leads people to believe that they can only survive in the wilderness."

The alpha wolf does not exist in the wild

"Contrary to the video, I didn't coin the term 'alpha wolf.' There was a scientist, a behaviorist in Germany in the 1940s. He wanted to study wolves and he kind of knew that wolves lived in a pack, but he had no idea what a pack was.

"To do this, he planned to study them in captivity. So, he went to a zoo and asked them for some wolves and went to another zoo and got some wolves and put them all together. That's not a natural pack, it's just an assemblage of wolves.

"So they did, they formed a dominance hierarchy. They fought. Some wolf got to be the top male and another wolf became the top female. I put his study in my book. That book is still being sold. I tried to get that off the shelf, but it's selling too well.

"In 1999, after I did quite a few studies in the wild, I found that a pack is really a family. They're about as monogamous as people. The parents are dominant to the offspring. But they didn't get there by fighting their way to the top like they did in that behavioral study. So, rather than the alpha male, we call them the breeding male."

The symposium, titled "Wolves in a Changing World," has attracted 500 of the world's leading wolf biologists from over 20 countries. For more information on the wolf, go to wolf.org.

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