The Gray Wolf
An iconic species of the American West, the gray wolf (Canis lupus) represents the largest member of the Canid family and the third largest carnivore found in the Pacific West. Though wolves dominated the North American landscape in the past, persecution by humans through the 1930’s caused wolf populations to plummet, leaving one small segmented population in Minnesota and Michigan.
Over the last few decades with the help of conservation and recovery efforts, wolves have rebounded in some regions. While wolves have made a promising comeback, they only occupy between approximately 5-15% of their historic range. As they slowly make their way back into their former habitats, help us welcome them back!
Species: Gray Wolf (Canis lupus)
Size: 26-32 inches tall; 4.5-6.5 feet long
Weight: 55-130 lbs
Coloration: gray to black to white
Lifespan in the wild: 7-8 years
Federal Conservation Status: Endangered (currently delisted in Eastern Oregon, Eastern Washington, Idaho, Michigan, Montana, North Central Utah, Wyoming, Wisconsin)
As carnivores, wolves’ primary prey consists of ungulates, or hoofed mammals, such as deer or elk. Though wolves largely rely on large prey species, they have also been known to consume smaller mammals, such as beavers or rabbits, as well as scavenge upon already dead animals. During periods of abundant food, wolves can eat up to 30 lbs of meat a day. Fluctuating environmental conditions require wolves to adapt to sudden abundances of prey often followed by days of prey scarcity.
Wolves are social predators, living in close-knit family units called packs. A wolf pack consists of an alpha male and female (also called the breeding pair) and their offspring. Alpha males and females are responsible for tracking and hunting prey, establishing territories, finding den sites, and reproducing. Subordinate wolves assist in rearing young pups and sometimes depart from the pack to establish new territories and form new packs.
The spread of wolves across a landscape primarily depends on territoriality. Territories are areas of habitat occupied and defended by a single wolf pack. These territories can vary in size depending on prey density and wolf population density but must be large enough for adult wolves to ensure the survival of their offspring. Territories have been documented as small as 50 square miles to as large as 1,000 square miles. Within these territories, wolves can travel as far as 30 miles a day.
Communication is an important component of wolves’ social structures. Wolves use a complex system ranging from barks and whines to growls and howls to communicate within and between packs. Researchers have recently found that howls are unique to individual wolves, allowing individual identification by wildlife managers and researchers.
In a given year, the alpha male and female of a stable pack mate in January or February and produce four to seven pups. The alpha female gives birth at the end of April in a den. Pups are raised by the whole pack until they reach maturity at 10 months.
At one point in time, wolves were common throughout the North American landscape. Due to a systematic extermination program of trapping, hunting and poisoning by humans, wolves came close to extinction. With the help of recovery efforts, wolf populations are beginning to rebound but are limited to Canada and portions of the U.S., including Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
Currently, the U.S. is home to over 5,000 wolves in the lower 48 states and an estimated 7,000 to 11,200 wolves in Alaska. Globally, wolf populations are estimated to be 200,000 individuals spread across 57 countries. This is just a fraction of historical population estimates of 2 million wolves worldwide.
Wolves gained endangered status in 1974 with their listing under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). Gray wolf recovery under ESA protection was a success in significant but limited regions. In the Great Lakes, wolf populations grew from a few hundred in the 1970s to around 5,000; they expanded their range from Minnesota to Wisconsin and Michigan. In the northern Rocky Mountains, natural migration from Canada and a 1995-1996 reintroduction to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho led to more than 1,700 wolves across Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Washington and Oregon. In the Southwest, just five surviving Mexican gray wolves were saved between 1977 and 1980 and bred in captivity; some of their progeny were reintroduced and now number approximately 75 in the wild in Arizona and New Mexico.
However, following these small recovery successes, a distinct population segment (DPS) was established in the northern Rockies encompassing all of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, as well as the eastern one-third of Washington and Oregon and a small part of north-central Utah (See map of the NRM DPS). Under this DPS designation, Congress approved the federal delisting of gray wolves in those areas in 2011. Following this action, delisting also occurred in Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
In June 2013, the Obama administration proposed to remove ESA protections for gray wolves in most of the lower 48 states. However, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed continued protection and expanded recovery of the Mexican wolf (Canis lupus baileyi) in the southwestern US. Though removing federal protections for wolves is being proposed, states such as Oregon and Washington have given statewide protection to wolves under their respective state Endangered Species Acts.
Additionally, in light of a lone wolf known as OR-7, who traveled from northeast Oregon into California during 2011, the state evaluated whether to afford wolves state protection. In December 2014, the California Fish and Game Commission granted statewide protections to wolves under the state’s Endangered Species Act. The state’s wolf conservation plan went into effect in 2016.
In 2015, Oregon’s statewide protections for gray wolves changed. On November 9, 2015, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Commission voted to remove the gray wolf from the state’s Endangered Species Act. The state of Oregon is currently updating its statewide wolf conservation plan.
Bounties placed on wolves in Oregon Territory
Wolves become scarce in California, Oregon, and Washington due to human persecution
Last confirmed wolf collected in Washington State from the Olympic Mountains
Last known confirmed wolf in California in Lassen County
Last wolf bounty paid in Oregon
Wolves functionally extinct from Pacific West states, as well as other U.S. states
Endangered Species Act (ESA) becomes law
Wolves listed as Endangered under the ESA
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service translocates gray wolves from Canada to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho for a reintroduction program
First wolf dispersal into Oregon, female was captured and returned to Idaho
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife traps and collars first breeding pair of wolves from the Lookout Pack in the North Cascades of Washington
Oregon’s first wolves, the Imnaha pack, establish themselves in the Wallowa Mountains
Wolves are removed from the ESA in the northern Rockies distinct population segment (Eastern Oregon, Eastern Washington, Idaho, Montana)
First wolf from Oregon, OR-7, disperses into California, becoming the first known wild wolf there in almost 90 years
Washington and Oregon document 30 individual wolves in each state
Multiple states in the de-listed northern Rockies initiated legal hunting season for wolves
Wolves are removed from the ESA in Wyoming and the Western Great Lakes region distinct population segment (Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, portions of adjacent states)
Wolves in Washington and Oregon continue to increase, totaling over 100 individuals in 13 packs
USFWS proposes to delist wolves in most of the lower 48 states
Wolves are granted statewide protections in the state of California under the state’s Endangered Species Act
A new wolf pack is confirmed in California (Aug. 2015) and in Washington (Nov. 2015)
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Commission voted to delist wolves from the state’s Endangered Species Act (Nov. 2015)
The U.S. government, through the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, is again proposing to delist all gray wolves nationwide from the Endangered Species list, thus turning over all gray wolf management to the individual states (March 2019)
"Since then I have lived to see state after state extirpate its wolves. I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen the south-facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails. I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anemic desuetude, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn."~ Aldo Leopold, Thinking Like A Mountain
Few species arouse such varied and strong emotions like wolves. The extirpation of wolves from the U.S. in the 1800’s arose from centuries of hatred and distrust bred from myths, folklore, and misinformation. However, over the last several decades, growing appreciation for wolves and recognition of their vital ecological role created space for their recovery. Now, for many people, wolves no longer represent a hated predator but rather an iconic species of the wild American West.
In light of the current proposal to delist wolves, it is important to revisit the important role wolves play both ecologically, and socially. Even now, researchers continually discover new cascading effects of wolves in our landscape.
Impact on ungulates: One of the most recognized and important roles wolves play is that of maintaining healthy herds of ungulate species (elk, deer, moose, etc.). Wolves select young, old, physically impaired, or diseased prey, which in turn can maintain a healthy herd size, disperse herds on the landscape, and remove sick animals.
Impact on coyotes: Filling the niche of the top predator in wolves’ absence, coyote populations increased substantially in Northern Yellowstone National Park when wolves were exterminated from the landscape. Though they are wily hunters, coyotes’ smaller stature precluded them from successfully preying on larger ungulates, allowing those populations to increase unchecked. With returning wolf populations, coyote populations and densities are decreasing. Preliminary studies show that wolf presence also may indirectly enhance the survival of pronghorn fawns by decreasing coyote populations.
Impact on scavengers: In Yellowstone National Park, at least 12 species of scavengers, including coyotes, grizzly bears, black bears, eagles, and ravens, can be found at wolf kills. Recent research suggests that the return of wolves may help buffer climate change impacts on scavengers by providing them with access to wolf kills during increasingly mild winters.
Impact on vegetation: Wolves’ reappearance on the landscape has also changed the behavior of their prey. In Yellowstone National Park, without wolves in the ecosystem, elk and deer were able to forage in open areas for long periods of time causing overbrowsing. With wolves returned to the landscape, elk and deer forage more frequently in protected cover and spend more time on the move, causing riparian areas and aspen groves to regenerate after years of overbrowsing. Recovering riparian areas encourages bird species and beavers to return to previously degraded areas.
Impact on tourism: Wolves generate substantial travel and tourism value. According to a study in Yellowstone National Park, wolves bring approximately 151,000 visitors to the park annually, bringing $35 million to Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. In a survey conducted in the same study, 2.8 million visitors indicated they would not have visited Yellowstone without the presence of wolves.
Impact on culture: For many people, the cultural importance of wolves ranks very high. Values can vary between spiritual, moral, aesthetic and recreational. Wolves often represent wildness in culture and many people feel see it is society’s responsibility to pass healthy and complete ecosystems on to future generations. In some Native American tribes, wolves hold sacred places in their folklore, heritage, and spirituality.
 Smith,Douglas W., R. O. Peterson, and D. B. Houston. 2003. Yellowstone after wolves. Bioscience. 53(4):330-40.
 Smith,Douglas W., R. O. Peterson, and D. B. Houston. 2003. Yellowstone after wolves. Bioscience. 53(4):330-40.; Wilmers et al. 2003
 Wilmers, C. C, and W. M. Getz. 2005. Gray wolves as climate change buffers in Yellowstone. PLoS Biology. 3(4):e92.
 Duffield, Jon. W., D. A. Patterson, and C. 1. Neher. 2008. Wolf recovery in Yellowstone Parkvisitor attitudes, expenditures, and economic impacts. Yellowstone Science. 16(1):20-5.