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Everything you need to know about wolves

The iconic and elusive canid explained, from epic journeys to their famous howl
By Ben Prater, Southeast Program Director for Defenders of Wildlife

What Is It?

Iconic, well-traveled and elusive canid, famous for their howl

Size

Wolves have a lean build, with long legs designed for long distance running. Males are generally larger than females.

Grey wolves are the largest wolves on Earth, measuring 26-32 inches at the shoulder and weighing between 55-130 lbs. Red wolves, the more diminutive species, measure around 26 inches at the shoulder and weigh between 50-80 lbs.

Age

The majority of wolves in the wild won’t live past five years of age. The lifespan of a wolf is unpredictable, as many pups don’t survive to adulthood. Individuals that do survive might only live two to three years, depending on environmental conditions, competition with other wolves, and the high risk of injury on a hunt. The rare wolf that survives these harsh conditions may live as long as 10 years in the wild. 

Photo from USFWS

Where Do They Live?

Historically wolves inhabited several continents, including Europe, Africa, Asia and North America. Grey wolves once spanned as far north as the North Pole and as far south as Mexico.

In North America, grey wolves once spanned the continent. Today, they can be found in the Northern Rocky Mountains, Great Lakes, Alaska, and throughout parts of the Pacific West and Canada.

Small populations of Mexican grey wolves, a subspecies of grey wolf, can also be found in the Southwestern United States.

Red wolves historically ranged along the east coast from Pennsylvania to Florida and as far west as Texas, but today are only found in a small patch of North Carolina.

Habitat

Compared to other species, wolves are hearty creatures. As long as they have access to food, family and fresh water, these canids can survive in just about any land habitat. Historically, grey wolves roamed through forest, mountains and plains in the thousands, but as humans move in and agriculture spread, wolves were pushed into forested public lands, where they’re primarily found today. Only Mexican grey wolves in the south-western United States now inhabit grasslands and scrublands.

Food

Wolves are primarily carnivores but will take advantage of other food sources, like insects and berries. They prefer large hoofed mammals, like elk, deer, moose and caribou, but will also hunt smaller prey, like rabbits. To survive, wolves must consume between 7-10 lbs of meat per day, but hunting can be difficult, so they must sometimes go days without eating. If the opportunity arises, wolves will happily scavenge and feed on carcasses they come across.

Photo from USFWS

Reproduction

The breeding season occurs once a year from late January through March. The gestation period is around 60 days. Pups are born blind and defenseless, in litters of 2-7 individuals. The pack cares for pups until they fully mature at around 10 months and are able to hunt on their own.

Behaviour

Wolves are highly mobile predators and can travel up to 50 miles a day in search of food. They spend most of their time on the move, either alone or with the pack. Wolves are highly social creatures, yet they’re shy in nature. They prefer to hunt at night and spend the day resting and caring for members of the pack.

5 Cool Facts

Wolves are vocal creatures, communicating to pack members through vocalizations like yips, barks and, of course, howls. A wolf howl can be heard from a distance of six miles and is most often heard at night when pack members are hunting and on the move.

Due to its smaller size and lean build, red wolves are sometimes mistaken for their canid cousins, coyotes, and some even claimed red wolves were a coyote subspecies. But recent taxonomic evaluations have revealed that red wolves are their own distinct wolf species.

Wolves are social creatures, living in packs that can number from two to 30 individuals. Their pack size and range depend dependson the abundance of food in an area. In a pack, generally only the alpha male and female breeding pair has pups, and wolves generally form pair-bonds for life.

Individual wolves, especially young wolves, will often leave their pack in search of a mate, a new pack or territory of their own. Wolves will also push out members if the pack is getting too large or if an individual challenges the dominant pair. Dispersing wolves have been known to travel 500 miles or more in search of a mate and new territory.

Despite their name grey wolves aren’t just grey. Their coats have a dynamic range of colours, often sporting several colours on one individual. Coats can range from black to grey to white or even a tawny brown or cream. Red wolves’ coats are a red or rusty brown colour.

Photo from USFWS

How Many Wolves Are On The Planet Today?

According to the IUCN, grey wolf numbers are currently estimated around 200,000 to 250,000 individuals worldwide.

The most prolific wolf populations can be found in the United States, where grey wolf populations have recovered a great deal over the past few decades, numbering about 6,000 today. In the Northern Rockies region of North America, after federal protections were put in place and habitat was protected, grey wolves numbered more than 430 individuals in 2000. By 2012, this number increased to more than 1600. Today the population is estimated around 2000.

One subspecies of grey wolf in particular has seen notable recovery. In 1998, 11 Mexican grey wolves were introduced into the wild, the only group to exist outside of captivity. After 20 years in the wild and under federal and state protection, these wolves numbered 163 as of 2019.

But red wolves, the other wolf species, continue to struggle in the American south-east. In 1980, there were less than 20 red wolves in the wild. Conservation efforts raised this number to as many as 150 by 2011. But after these protections were loosened, the population fell, and today there are less than 20 individuals. 

In the last 10 years, wolves around the world have continued to struggle with loss of habitat and weakened government protection. While there is increased interest in implementing non-lethal tools to reduce wolf-livestock conflicts, wolf numbers have largely remained unchanged.

Wolves in the United States are struggling to reclaim their historical ranges, after being eradicated from many areas due to human sprawl. They also face the threat of weakened government protections, which would open wolves up to increased hunting and trapping, decimating their numbers further.

Photo from USFWS

The Greatest Threats To Wolves…

Wolves have suffered the effects of generations of human legends and folklore, which often painted them as villains. In reality, wolves are shy and elusive, and are reluctant to encounter humans at all. When humans started moving into wolf territory, they began to farm and graze cattle where wolves once hunted, persecuting wolves because they perceived them to be a threat to land and livestock.

In the United States, most wolf populations are protected by the federal Endangered Species Act. But for years agricultural and landowner groups have fought to lessen protections for wolves. While wolf populations are increasing, wolves are far from recovered in their historical range and continue to clash with humans as they compete for food and natural resources.

Red wolves are under serious threat of extinction as they battle not just for survival but for protection as a wolf species. In 2019, the USA’s National Academy of Science concluded a study of red wolf DNA and declared it to be its own distinct wolf species. But poor genetic diversity and human-caused mortality in the wild are serious threats. More red wolves must be introduced into the wild and remain under protection to allow an established population to grow.

What Can People Do To Help?

Fight for the protection of wolves and the laws that protect them, such as the U.S.’ Endangered Species Act. The ESA protects wolves from being killed, requires scientists to plan for their recovery, and designates habitat for protection. By supporting these laws, we give wolves a fighting chance.

Support scientific studies that help gather information and track these predators to learn about their needs, range and habits. The more we know about wolves, the more we can help them and implement management strategies that are most effective for the species.

Use and advocate for government agencies to use non-lethal tools when conflicts with wolves arise. When wolf territory overlaps with cattle- and sheep-grazing lands, there can be casualties. Working with ranchers and landowners to implement preventative measures, like range riders, guard dogs and fladry (coloured flags on rope mounted on fences), can reduce the risk to livestock, ensuring both wolf and livestock can live another day.


Visit Defenders Of Wildlife: defenders.org

Follow Defenders Of Wildlife on Instagram: www.instagram.com/defendersofwildlife/

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NOTE: The best way to solve the crises facing the planet and its wildlife is by having open, honest, respectful conversations and hearing diverse voices from around the world. The New Big 5 project does not necessarily support or agree with every opinion or idea expressed by photographers, conservationists or organisations featured on the New Big 5 website. The many different wildlife charities, photographers, film-makers and conservationists we’ve collaborated with also do not necessarily support or agree with every idea or opinion expressed by other people or organisations on the website. It’s ok to disagree and debate. But we hope the opinions and ideas can inspire people, make people think, and be part of the conversation to help our planet and the animals that live on it.

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