The world of wolves is often daunting. Yet they’re not so foreign after all when looking in the eyes of our pet dog. Some confuse coyotes and wolves for the same species, or think gray wolves are the only wolves around. Even more deceptive is their ever decreasing population as a consequence of human expansion. Are wolves really out there? As it turns out wolves are no longer as abundant, making it harder to study and find them. Within the U.S. there are only 9,000 wolves, though still growing in numbers, in comparison to Canada’s 52,000 to 60,000. Thanks to recovery efforts, wolves are making a slow comeback and are no longer on the brink of extinction in the U.S. However, they continue to be listed as endangered.
Wolves are social animals, who hunt in packs, usually of 5 to 11 individuals, consisting of a mated pair and their offspring. Wolves are characterized by their unique howl, body language, scent markings, territorial tactics, and hunting abilities. Wolves belong in the Canid family, along with 35 other species; eight of these live in North America, including the gray wolf, red wolf, red fox, gray fox, kit fox, arctic fox, swift fox and the coyote.
The gray wolf (canis lupus) has the largest range among wolves. But there is debate over the exact number of gray wolf subspecies, due to interbreeding with coyotes. Some studies point to four to six subspecies in North America while others studies say 15 – 20. Names can vary by region, so its best to take note of their scientific names. The most common subspecies in the U.S. include Arctic wolf, Great Plains wolf, Mexican wolf, and Eastern wolf. Red wolves are considered another species, also rare in the states. If you’re curious about the wolves of North America and their livelihood, see the species below.
Arctic Wolf (Canis lupus arctos)
This furry white wolf is not a fan of human contact and has generally avoided persecution. It leads an almost comfortable life, except for the great enemy known as climate change. Extreme weather variations kill off their main food source, muskox and arctic hares, causing Arctic wolves to starve. And industrial expansion such as mines, roads, pipelines, continues to deteriorate the wolf’s habitat. The Arctic wolf can withstand frigid air temperatures of around -30°C (-22° F) and can even walk on frozen ground, which is rare among most mammals. They are smaller than gray wolves with smaller ears, a shorter muzzle and legs. They either live alone or in packs of six wolves and are usually all white with thick, insulating coats.
Great Plains Wolf (Canis lupus nubilus)
Also called the Buffalo wolf or Dusky wolf, the Great Plains wolf was once known to have the largest range in North America, however, by the 1930s they were all but wiped out. Some survived through the 1960s in northeastern Minnesota, along the Ontario border. In 2009, it was estimated that 2,922 wolves still lived in Minnesota, 580 in Michigan, and 626 in Wisconsin. Usually light-colored, varying in gray, black and reddish hues, the Great Plains wolf can weigh up to 100-150 pounds. It hunts white-tailed deer, moose, beaver, snowshoe hare, and smaller birds and mammals. These wolves keep smaller packs of five or six individuals, but have been known to congregate in larger packs.
Eastern Wolf (Canis lycaon)
Eastern wolf in captivity. [Image: www.redorbit.com]
Also known as the Eastern Timber wolf, this medium-sized species has a reddish-brown hue and is between the size of a coyote and a gray wolf. It typical hunts white-tailed deer, but occasionally hunts moose or beaver. Its numbers have depleted due to 400 years of hunting by humans, which have reduced available mates and forced Eastern wolves to breed with coyotes. The gene mixing among coyotes and gray wolves has weakened the gene of pure Eastern wolves in the U.S. And since these hybrids are too small in size, they don’t pose enough danger for moose and deer. In Algonquin Provincial Park (Canada) pure Eastern wolves are said to be year-round residents. Though here have been reports of coyote sightings in the area, experts say it’s uncommon, since wolves will kill off any trespasser, and it is difficult for coyotes to survive in completely forested areas.
Mexican Gray Wolf (Canis lupus baileyi)
Captive Mexican gray wolf. [Image: www.defendersblog.org]
Often called “el lobo”
(the wolf), this subspecies is one of the smallest, weighing 50 to 85 pounds; about the size of a German shepherd. Its long legs and sleek body allow it to run fast; add to that a superb sense of smell, hearing and vision. They usually hunt elk, mule deer, white-tailed deer, and javelina. They are clever at scavenging for dead elk, deer, cattle carcasses and hunter gut piles during hunting season. They prefer mountain forest, grasslands, and scrublands. Packs only consist of an adult alpha pair, a yearling or two, and pups from that breeding season. They exhibit social togetherness, for example, adults are patient with growing pups, feeding them meat brought back from kills. Once existing across central and southwestern U.S., el lobo
was almost wiped out by the 1970s. Breeding them in captivity and reintroduction into Arizona in 1998 (Apache National Forest) has allowed their numbers rise. About 300 are in captivity and 83 in the wild. Mexican wolves
are also being reintroduced in Mexico.
Red Wolf (Canis rufus)
Known as the Texas red wolf or the Common red wolf, this species is unique to North America. Their social and predatory tactics are the same as gray wolves. Red wolves have slender and longer heads, coarser and shorter fur than the gray wolf. They are larger, more robust with longer legs and larger ears than the coyote. The red wolf measures 15 to 16 inches shoulder height, 55 to 65 inches in length (nose to end of tail), weighing from 40 to 90 pounds. Its fur is mostly brown with blended colors ranging from cinnamon red to almost black. Two other red wolf subspecies are considered extinct: the Florida Black wolf (Canis lupus floridanus) and Gregory’s wolf (Canis lupus gregoryi). The Red wolf was nearly wiped out by the mid-1900s due to predator control programs, habitat destruction and extreme hybridization with coyotes. They survived in small numbers along the Gulf Coast of western Louisiana and eastern Texas. Of these survivors 14 were taken to a zoo then released in later years into North Carolina’s Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and later in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
To see where all these furry wolves live, download our Pocket Ranger® Guide for Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife Apps. And if you spot a cool wolf, share it on our social media sites, like our Pocket Ranger® or Trophy Case Instagram accounts.