The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







Grey Wolf

Conservation status: Lower Risk

|- | style="text-align:center;" | Gray Wolf
|- style="text-align:center;" ! style="background: pink;" | Scientific classification |- style="text-align:center;" |

|- valign=top |Kingdom:||Animalia |- valign=top |Phylum:||Chordata |- valign=top |Class:||Mammalia |- valign=top |Order:||Carnivora |- valign=top |Family:||Canidae |- valign=top |Genus:||Canis |- valign=top |Species:||C. lupus |} |- style="text-align:center;" ! style="background: pink;" | Binomial name |- style="text-align:center;" |Canis lupus
Linnaeus, 1758 |}

The Wolf or Grey Wolf (Canis lupus) is a mammal of the Canidae family and the ancestor of the domestic dog.

Wolves once had an almost worldwide distribution, but are now limited primarily to North America, Eurasia, and the Middle East. Their preference on habitat ranges among Forests, Tundra, Taigas, Plains and Mountains. In the northern hemisphere, human encroachment on their habitat and persecution of the animals themselves have drastically reduced their range. The wolf is today frequently in the line of fire in conflicts between many different interests: Tourism/Industry, City/Country as well as Conservation/Exploitation.

As the wolf is a top predator the state of the wolf can frequently be seen as a state of the land where it lives.



Wolves weigh 25 to 60 kg (50 to 130 lb), and are about 1 to 1.5 m (40 to 60 in) long with the tail being roughly a third of their body length. The males are larger than the females. The coloration runs from grey to grey brown but can vary through the canine spectrum of white, reddish, brown and black. The coat usually lacks any clear patterns except for paintings around the eyes. In areas where the ground is snow covered white wolves are far more common. Very old wolves get a greyish tint in their coat.

The wolf anatomy differs on several points from the dog. Most obvious is a pre-caudal gland on the over side of the tail, close to the base, that is not present on dogs. The wolf usually has golden-yellow eyes, longer legs, larger paws and more pronounced jaws.

The body of the wolf is built for long distance running, with a rather thin chest and powerful back and leg muscles. Wolves can move over great distances and the wide paws make sure deep snow hampers them less than their prey.

A wolf often seems more massive than a dog of comparable weight due to the extra bulk of the coat. The coat is built up of two layers, with hard guard hairs to repel water and dirt and a thick woolly undercoat to keep it warm. The wolf changes coat two times a year, during spring and autumn. Females tend to have a thicker winter coat and keep it further into the spring than males.

The wolves and most larger dogs share the same tooth configuration: The upper jaw has 6 incisors, 2 canines, 8 premolars, and 4 molars. The bottom jaw has 6 incisors, 2 canines, 8 premolars, and 6 molars. The canines are by far most important, as they are used to catch and hold prey. One common reason for wolves to starve is tooth damage after being kicked by larger prey.

Wolves live 6–9 years average in the wild, although in captivity on average they live 16 years. See mortality for more information.

Social structure

Wolves function as social predators and hunt in packs organised according to a strict social hierarchy and led by an alpha male and alpha female. This social structure allows the wolf to take prey many times its size. The size of the pack changes during the year and is controlled by factors such as mortality and food supply. Generally it's between 2 and 12, although packs with more than 30 have been recorded. The hierarchy of the pack is strict, with the alpha on top and the omega at the bottom. The hierarchy controls all activity in the pack, from which wolf eats first to which is allowed to breed (generally only the alpha pair). Between the extremes of the alpha and the omega there is usually a beta pair, contesters for the alpha position that will take it if any of the alpha wolves are killed. When an Alpha male or female is becoming old and decrepit, a younger, stronger animal, usually one of the beta pair, challenges the dominant animal. The loser of the fight is frequently chased away from the pack, or killed if it can not escape fast enough when the rest of the wolves turn on it. This kind of dominance fight is more common in the spring months, when mating occurs. All the wolves in the pack assist in raising the wolf pups. Some pups stay in the original pack to reinforce it and help rear more pups while others disperse.

New packs are formed when a wolf leaves its birth pack and claims a territory. Wolves searching for other wolves with which to form packs can travel very long distances in suitable territories. If there is a high wolf population, they must avoid the territories of other wolves because such intruders are chased away or killed. This probably explains wolf predation of dogs. Most dogs do not have much of a chance against a wolf protecting its territory from the unwanted intrusion. Packs frequently break apart when the alpha pair is killed.


The wolf is somewhat opportunistic and will eat what it comes across as long as it is reasonably fresh. Packs of wolves hunt any large herbivore in their range, while lone wolves are more prone to take and eat anything that comes across, including rodents. The hunting methods ranges from surprise attacks on smaller animals such as rabbits and rodents to long lasting chases. Wolves can chase large prey for several hours before giving up, but the success rate is rather low.

Livestock predation

As long as there are enough prey animals, wolves seem to avoid taking livestock. However, some problem animals can specialize in hunting livestock. Sheep are frequently the most vulnerable, while horses and cattle are at less of a risk. Wolf-secure fences and the killing of problem animals are today the only known methods to effectively stop livestock predation.

In some countries (and over several centuries), shepherds and dog breeders have developed large livestock guarding dogs that can stand up to wolves preying on flocks. In the United States, as the timber wolf has been re-introduced the USDA has been looking into the use of breeds such as the Akbash, from Turkey, the Maremma from Italy and the Kuvasz from Hungary, among others


Wolves communicate with a wide range of sounds, from yips and growls to howls. Howls are frequently used to summon the pack to a location, announce their presence to other packs or simply to reinforce the bounds in the pack. Wolves howl more frequently when they have something to protect, such as a freshly killed prey or a border of their territory, and less frequently when avoiding conflicts with other packs.


Normally, only the alpha pair of the pack breed. This kind of organisation also occurs in other pack-hunting canids, such as the Dhole and the African Hunting Dog. Mating usually occurs in February to May and wolves, unlike dogs, only mate once a year. Another interesting fact about the social economy of wolves is that they are usually monogamous: the alpha pair will ordinarily mate exclusively with each other so long as they both remain alphas. There are times when one of the alphas will attempt to mate with a subordinate wolf, and if the other alpha is unable to prevent it multiple litters can be born. This has been documented in Yellowstone amongst other places and usually occurs in large packs with plenty of available prey.

The gestation period is 61–63 days and the pups are born completely dependent on their mother. The wolf is sexually mature at two years old.


The oldest recorded free wolf was 16 years old. There has been reports of captive wolves reaching 20 years (not much unlike dogs). However the mean age of wolves is rather low. The mortality among pups is high; few survive the first winter. The most important mortality factors for grown wolves are hunting/poaching, car accidents, conflicts with other wolves and wounds from hunting. All diseases that affect dogs also affect wolves, including mange and rabies, and can from time to time wipe out the wolf population in an area. Wolves adjust rather well to fluctuations in prey populations, so mass starvation is unusual.

Wolves can sustain their population under a heavy pressure, as long as the alpha pairs are not killed.


Relation to the domestic dog

Much debate has occurred over the relationship between the wolf and the domestic dog. Most authorities see the wolf as the dog's direct ancestor, but others have postulated descent from the Golden Jackal . Because the canids have evolved recently and different canids interbreed fairly readily, untangling the true relationships has presented difficulties. However, molecular systematics now indicate very strongly that domestic dogs and wolves are more closely related than either is to any other canid, and the domestic dog is now normally classified as a subspecies of the wolf, Canis lupus familiaris.

Classification of the grey wolf

The classification of wolves and closely allied creatures offers many challenges. Although taxonomists have proposed many species over the years, most types clearly do not comprise true species. Indeed, only a single wolf species may exist. Scientists have proposed a host of subspecies. Many of these seem unlikely to stand. Further taxonomic clarification may well take decades.

Human attitudes towards wolves

The relationship between people and wolves has had a long and troubled history. Historically, humans have often viewed wolves as a danger or as nuisance to be destroyed. An opposing view suggests that wolves form a valuable part of the ecosystem and require protection. Often these views occur simultaneously and cause conflicts among differing groups of people, as one sees when a wildlife service or organization attempts to preserve vanishing wolves or to reintroduce wolves to a habitat.

Changing attitudes

In the late 20th century an increased awareness of the beneficial nature of wolves arose, encouraged by books like Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat and nature documentaries as well as by classification of the species as endangered. Accordingly, while the stereotype of wolves still has influence, a significant portion of the public has gained a positive opinion of wolves as interesting, valuable and even noble animals. Thus parks with a visible wolf population have often become popular tourist attractions. For instance, visitors to Yellowstone National Park can often see wolves from the roads.

Such organizations as the International Wolf Center attempt to educate people about the true nature of wolves, such action being helpful to the reintroduction process, especially in places such as Yellowstone National Park.

In other parks, tourists often participate in wolf howls, trying to make wolf-like howls in hopes that the resident wolves will answer. In fact, some nature-lovers have complained that this popularity has drawbacks since tourists sometimes intrude into wolf habitats and disturb them.

The large amount of research done on the wolf in the past half century has also helped to educate people and make them realize how sociologically similar humans are to wolves, and how we really have nothing to fear from these shy, majestic animals. Biologists such as L David Mech and Luigi Boitani have been major leaders in wolf research.

Nature documentaries have played a role changing attitudes. For instance, the film evidence of the wolf being a very social animal who is also a devoted parent to its young enlightened and charmed many viewers to a softer side to the feared predator.


In the United States wolves are making a comeback; not only are they slowly but surely coming back autonomously from the north, they are also being successfully reintroduced like in Wyoming. It is curious to note that farmers prefer reintroduction as this often allows for culling when livestock are imperiled while truly wild animals are protected by law.

Where wolves are reintroduced after a long absence, it has a marked influence on the coyote population. As they started to fill in the niche of the top predator, they started to grow bigger. With the return of the wolf these bigger coyotes are hunted down by wolves and go back to their previous niche.

In Sweden there is a long and ongoing conflict where some groups claim that the wolf has no place in the nature and that it has been secretly introduced by the government with some kind of secret agenda.

Wolves in religion and folklore

In many ancient myths, the wolf was portrayed as brave, honourable, and intelligent. The best examples of these myths can be seen in those of the Native Americans. The wolf was also the revered totem animal of ancient Rome; see Romulus and Remus and Lupercalia.

In more modern western folklore, the wolf is a creature to be feared. The iconic examples of this image are the werewolf and the Big Bad Wolf. Norse mythology includes several malevolent wolves: the giant Fenrisulfr, eldest child of Loki and the giantess Angrboda, who was feared and hated by the Aesir, and his children Skoll and Hati, who devour the sun and moon at Ragnarok.

Human fear of the wolf is responsible for most of the trouble the species has received, and the reason it was nearly hunted out of existence. However, in the 20th century, with the new knowledge of wolves and the growing respect for Native American folklore, the animal has been generally depicted much more positively.

Despite their often negative image, wolves have variously been credited, in mythology, fiction and reality, with adopting, nursing and raising human feral children. The most famous examples being Romulus and Remus and Mowgli of The Jungle Book.

Wolf hunting

Wolves are hunted for the pelt and to control the numbers. Previously anything was used to kill wolves, including large amount of poisons. Some of the more diabolic creations of mankind have been used to kill wolves during the extermination campaigns in Europe and America. Today most of the hunting is done on the ground or from helicopters, either with shotguns or rifles. Hunting from airplanes or helicopters is usually only legal for state officials. Wolves are considered hard to hunt, and can go far after being shot.


Wolves are frequently trapped, in the areas where it is legal, using snares or leg hold traps . The economic value of wolf pelts is limited, so it is mainly a recreation activity. Wolf trapping has come under heavy fire from animal rights groups and is used to attack other form of trapping and hunting. Trapping, using the right tools and equipment, can probably be considered as humane as hunting. However, unskilled trappers can create a lot of pointless suffering.


Wolves are bred in a few locations. They are rather problematic animals to breed, and combined with the low value of the pelt it has driven most of the farms to change to other animals, such as fox.

Subspecies of the wolf

a Mexican wolf
a wolf running in snow
Gray wolf
  • Gray Wolf Canis lupus
    • White Wolf Canis lupus albus
    • Kenai Peninsula Wolf Canis lupus alces
    • Arabian Wolf Canis lupus arabs
    • Arctic Wolf Canis lupus arctos
    • Mexican Wolf Canis lupus baileyi
    • Newfoundland Wolf Canis lupus beothucus
    • Bernard's Wolf Canis lupus bernardi
    • Steppe Wolf Canis lupus campestris
    • Mongolian Wolf Canis lupus chanco
    • British Columbia Wolf Canis lupus columbianus
    • Vancouver Island Wolf Canis lupus crassodon
    • Caspian Sea Wolf Canis lupus cubanensis
    • Spanish Wolf Canis lupus deitanus
    • Asian desert Wolf Canis lupus deitanus
    • Dingo Canis lupus dingo
    • Domestic Dog, Canis lupus familiaris
    • Cascade Mountains Wolf Canis lupus fuscus
    • Grey-white Wolf Canis lupus griseoalbus
    • Hokkaido Wolf Canis lupus hattai
    • Hudson Wolf Canis lupus hudsonicus
    • Honshu Wolf Canis lupus hodophilax
    • Northern Rocky Mountains Wolf Canis lupus irremotus
    • Labrador Wolf Canis lupus labradorius
    • Alexander Achipelago Wolf Canis lupus ligoni
    • Common Gray Wolf Canis lupus lupus
    • Eastern Timber Wolf Canis lupus lycaon
    • Northwest Territories Wolf Canis lupus mackenzii
    • Baffin Island Wolf Canis lupus manningi
    • Austro-Hungarian Wolf Canis lupus minor
    • Southwestern Wolf Canis lupus mogollonensis
    • Texas Wolf Canis lupus monstrabilis
    • Great Plains Wolf Canis lupus nubilus
    • Mackenzie Valley Wolf Canis lupus occidentalis
    • Greenland Wolf Canis lupus orion
    • Indian Wolf Canis lupus pallipes
    • Alaska Wolf Canis lupus pambasileus
    • Iberian Wolf Canis lupus signatus
    • Tundra Wolf Canis lupus tundrarum
    • Southern Rocky Mountains Wolf Canis lupus youngi

Wolf timeline in the United States

courtesy of the International Wolf Center

  • 1838
    • Bounty system started in Michigan.
  • 1849
    • Bounty system started in Minnesota. First bounty was $3.
  • 1865
    • Bounty system started in Wisconsin. First bounty was $5.
  • 1900
    • At the turn of the century wolves were rare in southern and western Minnesota, southern Wisconsin and Michigan, and all of the eastern U.S.
  • 1914
    • The U.S. Government provided poison and personnel in an attempt to rid the U.S. of the remaining wolves.
  • 1922–1935
    • State trapping system created in Michigan. Bounty stopped during this period but reinstated in 1935.
  • 1930
    • 150 wolves estimated to inhabit Wisconsin
  • 1940s
    • Wolves arrived on Isle Royale, Michigan.
  • 1950
    • It was estimated that only 50 wolves remained in extreme northern Wisconsin.
  • 1950–1952
    • It was estimated there were 450–700 wolves in northern Minnesota and an average of 253 wolves were taken annually under the state's bounty system.
  • 1956
    • Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) ended a wolf control program that included aerial shooting. About 190 wolves had been taken by various methods each year since 1953.
  • 1957
    • The bounty system ended in Wisconsin and wolves became totally protected under state law.
  • 1958
    • Formal monitoring program for wolves on Isle Royale began.
  • 1953–1959
    • The number of wolves taken by bounty in Minnesota ranged from 122 to 252 annually (average 189).
  • 1960
    • Wolves considered extirpated from Wisconsin.
    • Bounty system repealed in Michigan. The number of wolves bountied in the state had been decreasing: 1956 = 30, 1958 = 7, and only 1 in 1959.
  • 1960s This was considered by many to be the low point for wolf numbers in the lower 48 states.
    • The only remaining wolves were in extreme northeastern Minnesota (350–700) and on Isle Royale (about 20).
  • 1963
    • There were an estimated 20 wolves on Isle Royale.
  • 1960–1965
    • 171–211 wolves had been submitted for bounty each year in Minnesota.
  • 1965
    • Michigan gave the wolf complete protection under state law.
    • Last bounty ($35) was paid on a wolf in Minnesota.
    • The eastern timber wolf was thought to occur in only 3% of its former range in the US outside of Alaska.
  • 1966–1973
    • Around 200 wolves were harvested annually in Minnesota.
  • 1967
    • The eastern timber wolf was listed as "endangered' in the contiguous US under a 1966 federal Endangered Species Preservation Act. This act only provided limited protection on federal lands.
  • 1969–1974
    • Minnesota DNR conducted a Directed Predator Control Program and an average of 64 wolves were killed annually for depredating on livestock. The program provided a $50 incentive to designated trappers taking wolves in certain areas.
  • 1970
    • The Superior National Forest was closed to the taking of wolves on federal land. Private and state lands, including frozen lake surfaces inside and outside of the forest, were still open to wolf harvest.
    • There were an estimated 750 wolves in Minnesota, no wolves in Wisconsin, possibly scattered individuals in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and 18 wolves on Isle Royale.
  • 1973
    • The Endangered Species Act (ESA) was enacted into law by the US Congress.
  • 1974
    • Four wolves were captured in Minnesota and released in Michigan's Upper Peninsula by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). The reintroduction failed due to human-caused mortality to the wolves.
    • Public harvest of wolves in Minnesota ended.
    • In August the eastern timber wolf became legally protected under the Endangered Species Act of 1973.
  • 1975
    • The first documented reproducing pack of wolves in Wisconsin since the 1950s prompted the state to list the eastern timber wolf as a state endangered species.
    • The USFWS initiated a program to control wolf depredations in Minnesota. The program involved moving wolves from areas where wolves had killed livestock.
  • 1978
    • Minnesota Legislature enacted a state compensation program to pay livestock owners for losses from wolf depredation.
    • The Eastern Timber Wolf Recovery Plan was published. It called for 5 wolf management zones in Minnesota, the reestablishment of wolves elsewhere, a limited public harvest in Minnesota, and reclassification from endangered to threatened in Minnesota.
    • Minnesota wolves were reclassified from endangered to threatened. This change allowed the USFWS to kill wolves in areas where wolves had killed livestock.
  • 1979
    • Wisconsin began intensive monitoring of wolves and estimated there were 25 wolves in the state during the winter of 1979–80.
  • 1980
    • Minnesota DNR prepared a wolf management plan and proposed taking wolf management back from the USFWS.
    • 5 wolf packs were found in Wisconsin. 50 wolves were on Isle Royale, Michigan.
  • 1980s
    • Canine parvovirus became wide spread in the Lake States region. It is later suspected that parvo caused a drastic decline in the wolf population on Isle Royale and possibly throughout the region.
  • 1983
    • The USFWS recommended that trappers in Minnesota be allowed to take 50 wolves to supplement the depredation control program and that the control program be handed over to the state.
  • 1984
    • A court order prohibited the proposed trapper harvest of wolves in Minnesota. The USFWS retained management authority.
  • 1986
    • Federal wolf depredation activities transferred from the USFWS to the Department of Agriculture, Animal Damage Control (now Wildlife Services).
    • Wisconsin DNR created a Wolf Recovery Team to develop a state wolf recovery plan.
  • 1987
    • Wisconsin closed coyote hunting during the state's deer gun season in the northern portion of the state to reduce the number of wolves killed mistakenly.
  • 1988
    • 12 Wolves on Isle Royale.
  • 1988–1989
    • Minnesota DNR estimated that there were between 1500 and 1750 wolves in 233 packs in the state and the state's wolf range was estimated at about 25,000 square miles.
  • 1989
    • Wisconsin Wolf Recovery Plan initiated. A goal of 80 wolves in 10 packs for 3 years was set. Downlisting was to occur when this goal was met.
  • 1990
    • A long range plan by Minnesota DNR called for: maintaining at least 1000 to 1200 wolves through 1992; expanding recreational use and understanding of wolves; and assisting other states in establishing wolf populations.
  • 1991
    • The first documented observation of wolves reproducing in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan since the 1950s. Michigan wolf population estimated at 17.
  • 1985–1992
    • A series of studies suggested that human-caused wolf mortality, as indexed by road density and thus human access, was the primary factor limiting the distribution and abundance of wolves in the Great Lakes region.
  • 1992
    • The Eastern Timber Wolf Recovery Plan was updated. Minnesota estimated the state wolf population at 1500–1750 animals; Wisconsin estimated 45; and Michigan estimated 21 with another 12 on Isle Royale.
    • Michigan formed a wolf recovery team and later published a recovery plan.
    • Wisconsin Wolf Advisory Committee was formed to oversee wolf recovery and develop a wolf management plan which included criteria for reclassification.
  • 1994
    • Wisconsin and Michigan estimated they had 57 wolves each. Their combined estimates of over 100 wolves outside of Minnesota started the 5 year count down to delisting the eastern timber wolf as suggested in the 1992 Recovery Plan.
  • 1995
    • Wisconsin and Michigan estimated their populations at 83 and 80 respectively. Both states started the 3 year count down towards state reclassification.
  • 1996
    • The USFWS published their Vertebrate Population Policy which stated that existing populations can no longer be listed, reclassified, or delisted by political (for example state) boundaries.
    • Minnesota estimated there were between 2,000 and 2,200 wolves in the state. Wisconsin estimated their population at 99 wolves and Michigan estimated they had 116 wolves.
    • Wisconsin Wolf Advisory Committee began developing a new wolf management plan.
  • 1997
    • In November, the Minnesota DNR began a repeat of its 1988–89 extensive survey of wolf distribution and abundance in the state. Wisconsin population was 145.
    • Michigan DNR released its wolf recovery and management plan.
    • Michigan DNR estimated that there were 112 wolves in at least 20 packs in **Michigan's Upper Peninsula and 24 wolves in 3 packs on Isle Royale.
  • 1998
    • Minnesota DNR estimated that there were 2,450 wolves in Minnesota during the winter of 1997–98, and that the wolf range was around 88,325 square kilometres.
    • It was estimated that there were 178 wolves in Wisconsin and 140 in Michigan with an additional 14 on Isle Royale.
    • Minnesota DNR held a series of public information meetings around the state to discuss the future of wolves in the state.
    • US Interior Secretary, Bruce Babbitt, announced intentions to begin plans to remove the wolf from the endangered species list in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.
    • DNR organized a 32-member roundtable group composed of people from all sides of the wolf issue. They produced a recommendation for wolf management. These recommendations were used by the Minnesota DNR as they formed their wolf management plan.
  • 1999
    • Wisconsin DNR released its wolf management plan.
    • Wisconsin reclassifies the wolf from a state listed endangered species to a state listed threatened species because the goal of 80 wolves had been maintained since 1995.
    • The Minnesota Legislature failed to pass the roundtable's wolf management plan suggested by the Minnesota DNR.
    • Steven Kellert of Yale University completed a study of public attitudes towards wolves in Minnesota.
    • Wisconsin and Michigan estimate that they have 205 and 174 wolves respectively, with an additional 25 on Isle Royale.
  • 2000
    • Minnesota DNR proposed a modified version of the roundtable's wolf management plan.
    • Minnesota Legislature passes a bill containing an outline for wolf management in Minnesota.
    • A group of environmental and wolf advocate organizations filed a lawsuit claiming the wolf management bill for Minnesota was passed through an illegal method of "log-rolling".
    • Wisconsin and Michigan estimate that they have 266 and 216 wolves respectively, with an additional 29 on Isle Royale.
  • 2001
    • A Ramsey County judge dismissed the lawsuit that claimed that the Minnesota state wolf management bill was passed through an illegal method of "log-rolling".
    • Minnesota DNR sent its wolf management plan to the USFWS for review.
    • Wisconsin and Michigan estimate that they have 251 and 249 wolves respectively, with an additional 19 on Isle Royale.
    • A wolf which was trapped and radio-collared in Michigan in 1999 dispersed to Missouri, where it was mistaken for a coyote and killed.
    • 4 wolves confirmed shot in Wisconsin during the deer hunting season.
    • Livestock depredations in Minnesota at a 10 year low.
    • Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota, lifts a ban on snowmobile use of frozen bays within the park. 8 conservation and animal protection groups filed suit in US District Court opposing the decision.
  • 2002
    • Michigan reclassifies the wolf from state listed endangered species to a state listed threatened species.
    • Wisconsin and Michigan estimate that they have 320 and 280 wolves respectively, with an additional 17 on Isle Royale.

See also

External links

  • Kerwood Wolf - Wolf Information
  • Livestock guard dogs
  • International Wolf Center

Last updated: 02-06-2005 18:35:01
Last updated: 05-03-2005 17:50:55