Where once humans regarded wolves as a fearsome foe, more of us now see them through another lens. Dog lovers recognize our pets' ancestors when they see wolves at play, while ecologists see the positive impact of a top predator on an entire ecosystem. There's more respect and understanding of wolves, but there's still plenty of misconception. While wolves have been reintroduced successfully in several parts of the United States, ranchers and some hunters still shoot them as soon as they set foot outside park boundaries or near cattle raised for human consumption.

Enter Jim and Jamie Dutcher, who have worked for decades on wolf conservation issues. They thought they knew almost everything there was to know about the howling canids, but then they lived alongside a pack of wolves for six years in the wilds of Idaho. It was through continuous, close observations of the Sawtooth Pack of wolves — through birth, death and many seasons — that they reached a much more nuanced understanding of wolves' relationships. (It's worth noting that all studies of wolves previous to this one had been done in small enclosures; their enclosure was huge — and much closer to the size of a wolf's natural habitat.)

Jim and Jamie Dutcher Jim and Jamie Dutcher wrote 'The Wisdom of Wolves' to share their experiences of living alongside the pack. (Photo: Courtesy the Dutchers/National Geographic)

"We knew, going into this project, that wolves were social creatures, but after living with them, we can come to understand their bonds as something even deeper," wrote Jim and Jamie Dutcher in their latest book, "The Wisdom of Wolves: Lessons from the Sawtooth Pack." These social bonds were so significant, that the couple organized the book around themes they learned are inherent to wolf society: Trust, family, kindness, working together, respect for elders, curiosity, compassion and friendship.

Sound familiar? That's probably because these are all qualities that make human beings such a successful species. However, the Dutchers are careful to point out: "Our intention is not to anthropomorphize wolves or imbue them with human morals; it is to celebrate their very wolflike qualities through the lens of our own humanity."

Family ties

A lone wolf in a misty, dark wood. Wolves are often thought of as solitary creatures, but nothing could be further from the truth; they are intensely social animals. (Photo: Courtesy the Dutchers/National Geographic)

Even these wolf experts still had plenty to learn when they began living with wolves in a special camp. (This was set up in a thoughtful, ethical way, which you can learn more about at the link here or check out their book to get all the details.) The Dutchers knew wolves were social animals, but they were surprised to learn how wolves really behaved when they were observed up close. "The amount of compassion and care they show for one another — it blew us away," said Jamie Dutcher. "When one of the wolves was killed by a mountain lion, the pack stopped playing for six weeks. They howled differently, and they seemed visibly upset," said Jim Dutcher. "This really resonated with us."

"Wisdom of Wolves" is packed with examples like that: From family ties among the wolves, to the treatment of elder wolf pack members, to how the alpha male and female animals behaved — there were plenty of surprises. "Alphas ... are so much more than the dominant individuals in the pack," wrote Jim Dutcher. "After spending years in [alpha wolf] Kamots' company, we have concluded that being alpha has almost nothing to do with aggression and everything to do with responsibility."

Dutcher goes on to explain that while alphas may be dominant and are the animals who breed to create the next generation, they also carry a very real burden, caring for the safety of the whole pack, and knowing where prey is and how best to hunt it. In fact, some anthropologists think humans may well have learned to hunt by watching how wolves work together to bring down prey animals like deer and elk. (The Dutchers' site now has a really wonderful new interactive section where you can dig deep into wolf behavior like this in more detail.)

Understanding wolves

Sawtooth pack wolf pups. Pups of the Sawtooth pack. (Photo: Courtesy the Dutchers/National Geographic)

The Dutchers also observed other traits among the wolves they studied, including a whole chapter on curiosity in the book. While the human couple were building a tented camp within the wolves' territory, the pack spent time observing them, turning the tables on observer and subject: "I often found myself wondering who was observing whom," Jim Dutcher writes. "If something seemed important to us, it became fascinating to them ... It seemed as if they wanted to learn as much as they could about what we were doing," he writes of the wolves' constant curiosity about new objects in their territory.

Dutcher goes on to detail that when tested, wolves show better problem-solving ability than domestic dogs do, though our beloved pets are better at communicating with us—Rex and Fido get help with solving a problem by getting us to help. But that explorative curiosity—searching out new spaces even when there's no food or obvious reward involved—is yet another trait we share with wolves.

"We do believe that once people realize that their [negative] perception of wolves is a myth, they'll start thinking of them differently. That they are social, caring animals, similar to elephants," said Jamie Dutcher. And unlike so many of the charismatic megafauna that live in countries far from our homes, "We have this incredible keystone species here in North America," she said.

That's why this couple has dedicated their life to educational programs that tell the real story about wolf behavior. They travel the country educating groups, from schoolchildren to adults, about the reality of how wolves live, form families, and how we can learn to live with them in a way that's beneficial to both.

Translating what they learned for humans

"We've had letters from hunters where they've written that 'I don't want to kill, I don't want to shoot them, now that I know how they live'," said Jim Dutcher. But there's plenty more to do. Jamie Dutcher cites California as a good example of a state that has handled wolf reintroduction well, protecting them even once they were removed from the Endangered Species List. But other states have been less pro-wolf, and just a few decades after reintroduction, hunters and even state employees are being tasked with wolf killing — which due to the social nature of wolves, disturbs pack dynamics and breaks up family groups, which can exacerbate some of the behaviors we want less of, creating a vicious cycle. "We still do have a long way to go, unfortunately. Wolf reintroduction has been successful, but the amount of management [of wild wolves] is extreme," said Jamie Dutcher.

Ultimately, wolves benefit humans by maintaining balanced, healthy ecosystems, as the couple explains in the video interview above. (The video covers a lot more ground, including fascinating details about what it was like to live with them.) The Dutchers say there are ways to deal with the human-wolf conflicts that arise, including using cattle and livestock management techniques that were common 100 or more years ago, when wolves were a fact of life. They were almost entirely eliminated in the lower 48 states by the 1920s.) They have outlined best practices for ranchers, supported by science on their website, which also includes lots of interactive content to encourage and deepen our understanding of wolves.

The long-time wolf advocates want to see wolves understood in a new way, because, as the Dutchers write in their book, "As it happens, many of the qualities that make a wolf successful at being a wolf also represent the best in human nature."

Starre Vartan ( @ecochickie ) covers conscious consumption, health and science as she travels the world exploring new cultures and ideas.