Gray Wolf

Gray Wolf

Genus:  Canis 
Species: lupus

The gray or timber wolf's story is one of the most compelling tales of American wildlife. Once, the wolf was widespread across most of North America, but it was hunted ruthlessly and extirpated over most of its range. Today, the wolf is making a successful comeback in some of its former habitat due to strong conservation efforts. The gray wolf plays a vital role in the health and proper functioning of ecosystems.


Gray wolves are canines with long bushy tails that are often black-tipped. Coat color is typically a mix of gray and brown with buffy facial markings and undersides, but the color can vary from solid white to brown or black. Gray wolves look somewhat like a large German Shepherd. 

Size: Wolves vary in size depending on where they live. Wolves in the north are usually larger than those in the south. The average size of a wolf's body is 3-5 feet long. Their tails are usually 1-2 feet long. Females typically weigh 60-100 pounds, and males weigh 70-145 pounds.

Diet: Wolves are carnivores--they prefer to eat large hoofed mammals such as deer, elk, bison and moose. They also hunt smaller mammals such as beavers, rodents and hares. Adults can eat 20 pounds of meat in a single meal.

Typical Lifespan: In the wild, they live 8-13 years, sometimes more. In captivity, they live upwards of 15 years.

Habitat and Range

Wolves can thrive in a diversity of habitats from the tundra to woodlands, forests, grasslands and deserts.

Today, gray wolves have populations in Alaska, northern Michigan, northern Wisconsin, western Montana, northern Idaho, northeast Oregon and the Yellowstone area of Wyoming. Mexican wolves, a subspecies of the gray wolf, were reintroduced to protected parkland in eastern Arizona and southwest New Mexico. The historic range of the gray wolf covered over two-thirds of the United States.

How Wolves Communicate

Wolves communicate through body language, scent marking, barking, growling and howling. Much of their communication is about reinforcing the social hierarchy of the pack.

  • When a wolf wants to show that it is submissive to another wolf, it will crouch, whimper, tuck in its tail, lick the other wolf's mouth or roll over on its back.
  • When a wolf wants to challenge another wolf, it will growl or lay its ears back on its head.
  • A playful wolf dances and bows.
  • Wolves bark as a warning.
  • Howling is for long-distance communication to pull a pack back together and to keep strangers away.

Life History and Reproduction

Wolves live in packs. Most packs have four to nine members, but the size can range from as few as two wolves to as many as 15. Occasionally, a pack can increase to 30 members until some individuals break off to find new territory and form their own pack.

Wolf pack

Within the pack hierarchy, there are male and female hierarchies. The alpha male is dominant over the entire pack, both males and females. The alpha female and male are the only ones that breed.

Wolf packs usually hunt within a territory. Territories can range from 50 square miles to over a 1,000. Wolves travel as far as they need to in order to find prey. They often travel at five miles per hour but can reach speeds of 40 miles per hour.

When the young adults reach the age of three, they can either join the pack or leave to find their own territory.  The new territory can be close by if there is a lot of prey. In some areas, young adults travel hundreds of miles to find a new territory.

Wolves typically mate for life. In the northern United States, they breed from late January through March. The breeding season is earlier for wolves living farther south. Wolves are pregnant for about 63 days and usually birth four to six pups.

The wolf pups are usually born in a den. At birth, they cannot see or hear and weigh about one pound. The pups are weaned at about six weeks. Adult pack members swallow meat and bring it back to the den for their pups. After the adults regurgitate the food, the pups have a hearty meal. The mother wolf moves her pups to new den sites every couple of months until the fall when the pack stops living at den sites.

See also red wolves >>

Related Links
  • Tar Sands Development to Lead to Poisoning of Wolves

    Canada’s Minister of Environment said that thousands of Alberta wolves will need to be killed to rescue caribou impacted by tar sands development

  • A Top Dog Takes Over

    Exterminated from Yellowstone National Park eight decades ago, gray wolves are back—and boosting the park’s biodiversity

  • Sexy Beasts

    Efforts to protect wolves are often undermined by misinformation and myth; biologist Doug Smith is getting out the truth

Get Our E-Newsletter 
Subscribe to Ranger Rick Magazines today!