Killing for sport. It is something that, as humans, whether we partake in it or not and whether we agree with it or not, we should be fairly familiar with. The human race is after all the main culprit when it comes to this practice. However, recently reports have been surfacing of an incident in Wyoming where 19 elk were found dead, having fallen victim to wolves. Now of course, 19 is a very large number and such a display is unusual, with wolves and many other predators usually only taking the number of animals that they need to feed on to survive. Of course, this depends on the size of the pack to be fed, but in Wyoming, the typical number of elk taken by their wolf packs usually numbers 2 or 3. So, why 19? After all, most of the elk carcasses discovered were untouched in terms of being fed upon, so why were they killed? If they have not been eaten and so many have been killed, could this really be a case of a wolf pack killing for fun or for sport?
Some people would claim that it is and dare I say it, some people would even use this case and others like it to justify the control and hunting of large predators such as wolves. However, it is not as clear cut as all that. The idea that the wolves of Wyoming were hunting purely for fun, is in fact, very unlikely, if not out of the question. These events and others similar, do actually have a name. No, not sport, not fun, not uncontrollable wild animals running riot, but something called ‘surplus killing.’
‘Surplus killing’, as you may have guessed, is pretty much what it says on the tin, and it is not just seen in wolves, with it also being recorded in bears, mountain lions, coyotes and foxes. So why does it happen and what is the purpose? Well, we’re not entirely sure, but as ever, we have theories. Theories that provide reasons for these incidences, aside from just mindless killing by blood thirsty predators.
Some of the theories behind ‘surplus killing’ include animals killing more than they require in winter, when the freezing temperatures preserve prey, which can then be kept for later consumption when prey is scarce. Another theory, which may be applicable to the incident in Wyoming, is that disease and ill health have made the population of prey vulnerable, therefore making them easier to prey upon. The elk in Wyoming are due to be tested for disease. In addition, it is sometimes thought that the behaviour and herding of prey can actually trigger the instinctual predatory response in their hunters, making predators more likely to kill a number of animals, rather than just the number that they require. For example, the behaviour of sheep, who are known to herd and even run in circles when being chased rather than running from hunters, is thought to trigger such instincts in predators, with animals such as foxes, wolves and even dogs killing several animals at once due to this response.
In Wyoming however, it is thought that up to 9 individual wolf packs were responsible for the dead elk, not just one pack. In Wyoming, wolves are still protected from hunting. In 2012, they attempted to take the wolf off the endangered species list, but this was rejected in 2014 and the species is still protected under federal law.
However, ‘surplus killing’ is not a phenomenon that is exclusive to large predators and carnivores. It has also been observed in zooplankton, mites, damselfly, spiders and many others. Unfortunately, surplus killing can affect the food chain, depleting food resources, but because surplus killing is so rare, especially amongst larger predators, any serious impacts are also rare. The only impact that the Wyoming killing is likely to have, is affecting the elk hunting season for humans.
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