Two species of wolves occur in North America, gray wolves (Canis lupus) and red wolves (Canis rufus). The common names are misleading since individuals of both species vary in color from grizzled gray to rusty brown to black. Some gray wolves are even white. The largest subspecies of the gray wolf are found in Alaska and the Northwest Territories of Canada. Wherever wolves occur, their howls may be heard. The howl of a wolf carries for miles on a still night. Both gray wolves and red wolves respond to loud imitations of their howl or to sirens.
The legal status of gray wolves varies in time and location from endangered, threatened, game species, or under review in the lower 48 contiguous states. In Canada and Alaska, gray wolves are considered both furbearers and game animals and are subject to sport harvest and control measures regulated by province or state agencies. In the US, the red wolf is listed as endangered wherever found, except where listed as an experimental population (portions of NC and TN). Hunting, possession, malicious harassment, or killing an endangered or threatened species may result in fines and/or jail time. If you are experiencing conflicts with red or gray wolves, consult your state wildlife agency to determine the federal and state status and legal options available to you.
Adult male gray wolves typically weigh 80 to 120 pounds (36.3 to 54.4 kg), and adult females 70 to 90 pounds (31.8 to 40.8 kg). Although males rarely exceed 120 pounds (54.4 kg), and females 100 pounds (45.4 kg), some individuals may weigh much more. Gray wolves vary in length from about 4.5 to 6.5 feet (1.4 to 2 m) from nose to tip of tail and stand 26 to 36 inches (66 to 91.4 cm) high at the shoulders (Mech 1970).
Red wolves are intermediate in size between gray wolves and coyotes. Typical red wolves weigh 45 to 65 pounds (20.4 to 29.5 kg). Total length ranges from about 4.4 to 5.4 feet (1.3 to 1.6 m) (Paradiso and Nowak 1972).
During the 1800s, gray wolves ranged over the North American continent as far south as central Mexico. They did not inhabit the southeastern states, extreme western California, or far western Mexico (Young and Goldman 1944). In the late 1800s and early 1900s, wolves were eliminated from most regions of the contiguous United States by control programs that incorporated shooting, trapping, and poisoning. In 1994, an estimated 55,000 gray wolves exist in Canada and 5,900 to 7,200 in Alaska. In the contiguous United States, the distribution of the gray wolf has been reduced to approximately 3% of its original range.
According to the Wolf Conservation Center, Minnesota has the largest population of wolves in the lower 48 states, estimated at nearly 2,700 (winter 2019-2020). Wolves have recolonized Wisconsin, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, northwestern Montana, central and northern Idaho, and northern Washington. A few isolated gray wolves may also exist in remote areas of Mexico.
Efforts to reestablish gray wolves were conducted in northwestern Montana, central Idaho, the Greater Yellowstone area, and northern Washington (USFWS 1987). In 2021, based on remote camera surveys, Idaho’s gray wolf population was estimated to be about 1,543. For the same year, Montana had a population of 1,141 and Wyoming had 314.
Red wolves originally occurred from central Texas to Florida and north to the Carolinas, Kentucky, southern Illinois, and southern Missouri (Young and Goldman 1944). Years of predator control and habitat conversion had, by 1970, reduced the range of the red wolf to coastal areas of southeastern Texas and possibly southwestern Louisiana. When red wolf populations became low, interbreeding with coyotes became a serious problem. In the mid-1970s, biologists captured the last few red wolves for captive breeding before the species was lost to hybridization. The red wolf was considered extinct in the wild until 1987, when reintroductions began.
Red wolf recovery attempts have been made on Bulls Island near Charleston, South Carolina, and on Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in eastern North Carolina (Phillips and Parker 1988). The Great Smoky Mountains National Park in western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee were being considered as a red wolf reintroduction area. The goal of the red wolf recovery plan was to return red wolves to nonendangered status by “re-establishment of self-sustaining wild populations in at least 2 locations within the species’ historic range” (Abraham et al. 1980:14). As of February 2023, 14 red wolves were known to exist in North Carolina (Wolf Conservation Center).
Voices and Sounds
To communicate, wolves bark, whine, growl, yip, and whimper, although they are probably most known for their mournful howls. Excellent audio files of wolf vocalizations are available at Living with Wolves (The Language of Wolves – Living with Wolves).
Tracks and Signs
Wolf tracks are similar to coyote tracks but are much larger and reveal a longer stride. A wolf’s front foot is broader and usually slightly longer than its rear foot.
Track measurements of the eastern subspecies of gray wolf found in Minnesota and Wisconsin are slightly smaller. The distance between rear and front foot tracks of a wolf walking or trotting on level ground varies between 25 and 38 inches (63.5 to 96.5 cm). When walking, wolves usually leave tracks in a straight line, with the rear foot prints overlapping the front foot prints. In deep snow, wolves exhibit a single-file pattern of tracks, with following wolves stepping in the tracks of the leading wolf.
Wolf tracks are similar to the tracks of some large breeds of dogs but are generally larger and more elongated, with broader toe pads and a larger heel pad. Dog tracks are rounder than wolf tracks, and the stride is shorter. When walking, dogs leave a pattern of tracks that looks straddle-legged, with the rear prints tending not to overlap the front prints. Their tracks appear to wander, in contrast to the straight-line pattern of wolf tracks.
Wolf scat is usually wider and longer than coyote scat. Scats 1 inch (2.5 cm) or larger in diameter are probably from wolves; smaller scats may be from wolves or coyotes. Wolf scats frequently contain large amounts of hair and bone fragments. Since wolves feed primarily on big game, their scats are not as likely to contain the fine fur or the small bones and teeth that are often found in coyote scats.
Information on this species is based on the chapter in Prevention and Control of Wildlife Damage (Hygnstrom, Larson, Timm, ed. 1994), written by William J. Paul (USDA-APHIS) and Philip S. Gibson (Kansas Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit).