South Dakota ES - Gray Wolf
Mountain-Prairie Region
Graphic button showing the 8 state mountain prairie region

Engangered Species - Gray Wolf



Ecological Services

Photo: FWS

Gray Wolf
(Canis lupus)

There are no known populations of wolves in South Dakota.

FAMILY: Canidae

DESCRIPTION: The wolf is the largest member of the dog family.  Wolves can weigh from 40 to 175 pounds depending on sex and geographic location.  The average life span for a wolf is from six to eight years. Most are a grizzled gray but they can be black or white.  Wolves resemble coyotes and large domestic dogs except wolves have longer legs, larger feet and wider heads.  The main prey for wolves is large ungulates:  white-tailed deer, elk, moose, big horn sheep, etc.  They also eat beaver and snowshoe hare.

STATUS: Gray wolves were listed as endangered in the lower 48 states and threatened in Minnesota on March 9, 1978. 

REASONS FOR CURRENT STATUS: Gray wolves once ranged across the entire North American continent. The spread of European settlers depleted populations of large ungulates (i.e., bison, elk, moose) thereby reducing the number of prey available to wolves. Eventually, wolves began to prey on livestock. In response to demands from ranchers, government agencies instituted a bounty program to eradicate gray wolves. By the early 1900s the historic range of the gray wolf was reduced to Alaska, Canada and northeastern Minnesota.

Constantly persecuted and targeted by large scale predator eradication programs sponsored by the federal government, wolves have been pursued with more passion and determination than any other animal in U.S. history. By the time wolves were finally protected by the Endangered Species Act, they had been exterminated from the lower 48 states, except for a few hundred that inhabited extreme northeastern Minnesota.

REPRODUCTION AND DEVELOPMENT: Wolves are social animals and live in groups called packs.  A pack usually consists of a set of parents (alpha pair), their offspring and other non-breeding adults. Wolves begin mating when they are 2 to 3 years old, sometimes establishing lifelong mates. Wolves usually rear their pups in dens for the first six weeks. Dens are often used year after year, but wolves may also dig new dens or use some other type of shelter, such as a cave. An average litter will have four to six pups born in April or May.  Pups are cared for by the entire pack. They depend on their mother's milk for the first month, then they are gradually weaned and fed regurgitated meat brought by other pack members. By 7 to 8 months of age, when they are almost fully grown, the pups begin traveling with the adults. Often, after 1 or 2 years of age, a young wolf leaves and tries to find a mate and form its own pack. Lone dispersing wolves have traveled as far as 500 miles in search of a new home.

Wolf packs usually live within a specific territory. Territories range in size from 20 square miles to more than 500 square miles depending on how much prey is available and seasonal prey movements. Packs use a traditional area and defend it from strange wolves.  Wolves may travel as far as 30 miles in a day. Although they usually trot along at 5 m.p.h., wolves can attain speeds as high as 45 m.p.h. for short distances.

Indirectly, wolves support a wide variety of other animals. Ravens, foxes, wolverines, vultures and even bears feed on the remains of animals killed by wolves. In some areas, bald eagles routinely feed on the carcasses of animals killed by wolves during the winter. Antelope are swift, elk are alert, and mountain goats can climb steep cliffs because of the long term evolutionary effect of wolf predation. 

Wolves are noted for their distinctive howl, which they use as a form of communication. Biologists do not know all of the reasons why wolves howl, but they may do so before and after a hunt, to sound an alarm and to locate other members of the pack when separated. Wolves howl more frequently in the evening and early morning, especially during winter-breeding and pup rearing. Howling is also one way that packs warn other wolves to stay out their territory.

RANGE: Historically, wolves occurred across most of North America, Europe and Asia.  In North America, gray wolves once ranged from coast to coast and from Canada to Mexico.

POPULATION LEVEL: Today about 2,200 wolves live in the wild in Minnesota, fewer than twenty on Lake Superior's Isle Royale, about 120 in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, 120 in Wisconsin, and about 240 in the northern Rocky Mountains of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. In Alaska, wolf populations number 5,900 to 7,200 and are not considered endangered or threatened.

HABITAT: Wolves are highly adapted to climate extremes.  They are  equally at home in the deserts of Israel, the deciduous forests of Virginia and the frozen Arctic of Siberia.

MANAGEMENT CONSIDERATIONS: Wolf recovery under the Endangered Species Act has been so successful that in June 1998, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it would review the species' status and consider delisting or reclassifying specific wolf populations where appropriate. The wolf's comeback has been attributed to a combination of scientific research, conservation and management programs, and education efforts that helped to increase public understanding of wolves.

Successful reintroduction and management programs have greatly accelerated wolf recovery in the Rocky Mountains. Gray wolves have greatly expanded their numbers thanks to science-based wolf and wolf habitat management; restoration of wolf prey species such as deer, elk and moose; and habitat and legal protection.

The largest wolf population in the lower 48 states resides in Minnesota.  A state program provides compensation for livestock confirmed to be killed by wolves, and a federal program provides for trapping of individual wolves guilty of depredation.

Wolf recovery and management are often controversial due to people's attitudes, fears and misunderstandings about wolves. Attitudes are often based on inaccurate information.  For example, some people continue to carry the unfounded fear that wolves attack people or threaten outdoor activities. In fact, wolves generally avoid humans. While wolves certainly have the ability to kill people, there has never been a verified report of a healthy wild wolf deliberately attacking or seriously injuring a human in North America. Wolves can be very tolerant of human activity if they are not deliberately persecuted so there is rarely a reason to restrict human activity, including logging and mining, simply because wolves live in the area.

Yellowstone National Park has been at the center of debates over the wolf. By about 1930, wolves had been deliberately extirpated from the western United States, including Yellowstone. After years of comprehensive study and planning, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reintroduced gray wolves into Yellowstone and U.S. Forest Service lands in central Idaho. In 1995 and 1996, 31 wolves from Canada were temporarily held in pens before being released in Yellowstone National Park. At the same time 35 wolves were released on remote Forest Service lands in Idaho. All of the reintroduced wolves were fitted with radio collars and monitored by biologists from the Fish and Wildlife Service and other cooperating agencies. The reintroduction has been very successful and by December 1997 about 80 wolves lived in each area. In 2011, wolves in Idaho and Montana were delisted and efforts are underway to delist the wolf in Wyoming.

The Yellowstone and Idaho wolves are designated as non-essential, experimental under the Endangered Species Act. This designation allows federal, state and tribal agencies and private citizens more flexibility in managing these populations. Wolves that prey on livestock will be removed and, if necessary, destroyed.  The experimental program has worked so well in the northwestern United States that a similar effort is being used to restore Mexican wolves to their historic range in the southwestern United States.

Wolf recovery efforts represent an opportunity to redress past mistakes and enhance our understanding not only of wolves themselves, but also the complex interactions among species in their natural environments.

Information summarized from:

Mech, D. L. 1988. The wolf: the ecology and behavior of an endangered species. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Northern Rocky Mountain Wolf Recovery Team. 1980.  Northern Rocky Mountain Wolf Recovery Plan.  US Fish and Wildlife Service.

USFWS Wolf Species Profile page

Another source for information:  USFWS Region 3 website located at


The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with Others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American People.
Last modified: July 10, 2019
All Images Credit to and Courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Unless Specified Otherwise.
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