North Dakota Field Office
Mountain-Prairie Region

Gray Wolf (Canis lupus)


gray wolf by US Fish & Wildlife Service
(by US Fish & Wildlife Service)

Official Status:  Threatened in portions of lower 48 states; Endangered in southwestern United States.  Species are considered threatened when they are likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of their range.

Listed:   43 Federal Register 9612; March 9, 1978 (48 conterminous states, except Minnesota).

Historical Status:  The gray wolf had the greatest distribution of any mammal other than man.  The gray wolf was historically found throughout North America, with the exception of parts of the southwest and southeast United States.  In the southeast United States, the gray wolf was replaced by the smaller red wolf.  The gray wolf was historically present throughout North Dakota where it was known as the Plains wolf, the buffalo wolf, or the lobo wolf.

Present Status:  The gray wolf is extirpated from the lower 48 states, with the exception of Minnesota (2,445 wolves); Wisconsin (323 wolves); Michigan (278 wolves); and Montana, Idaho, and Washington (total 664 wolves).  However, there have been documented occurrences of gray wolves in North Dakota during the 1990's.  The presence of wolves in most of North Dakota will likely remain sporadic and consist of occasional dispersing animals from Minnesota and Manitoba.

Habitat:   Historically, the gray wolf occupied almost all habitats in North America, including the Great Plains.  In modern times, the gray wolf has been restricted to habitats with low densities of roads and people.  Likely habitat for the gray wolf in North Dakota is the forested areas in north central and northeast North Dakota; however, they may appear anywhere.

Life History:  Gray wolves generally do not breed until they are 3 years of age.  Gray wolves breed in late winter.  After a gestation period of 63 days, an average litter of six pups is born in a den in the ground, rockpile, hollow log, or other shelter.  When the pups reach 8 weeks of age, the adults may move them to another den.  By October, the pups will weigh about 60 pounds and travel with the adults.  Young gray wolves usually stay with the adults for 2 years, forming a pack.  At 2 years of age, gray wolves may disperse hundreds of miles from their original home.  Gray wolves usually hunt large animals such as moose and deer, although beaver and other smaller animals supplement their diet.  Gray wolves are often more successful taking old, weak, or injured prey.  Gray wolves are territorial and will keep other gray wolves and coyotes out of their 50-100 mile2 home range.  Howling is a way for pack members to communicate.

Aid to Identification:  Gray wolves can range in color from white to black, although gray is the predominant color.  Mature gray wolves generally weigh from 70-115 pounds and stand about 30" high at the shoulder.  Coyotes are considerably smaller than gray wolves, usually weighing less than 35 pounds.  A good field guide is that gray wolves will be larger than a typical German shepherd, while coyotes will be smaller.  The track of a gray wolf will be about 5" long, compared to 3" for a coyote track.  Some dogs, such as Great Danes, can have tracks as large as a gray wolf.

Reasons for Decline:  Gray wolves have been exterminated by man throughout most of their original range.  Shooting, trapping, and poisoning were often subsidized by the government.  Illegal shooting continues to be a problem.

Recommendations:  Reports or signs of gray wolves should be reported to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Comments:  There are no known gray wolf attacks on humans in modern times in North America.  Gray wolves do take livestock, although the occurrences are rare.  In gray wolf range in Minnesota, gray wolves take only 1 of every 2000 cattle.  Most gray wolves avoid livestock.  Some States have programs that reimburse livestock owners for wolf damage.

References:   Wolf! A Modern Look by Wolves in American Culture Committee, 1986.

gray wolf by US Fish & Wildlife Service
(by US Fish & Wildlife Service)

Last updated: February 19, 2013