Wild carnivorous mammals of the canid (dog) family that live and hunt in packs.
What do you know about wolves? You may know something about them from fairy tales like “Little Red Riding Hood” or “The Three Little Pigs.” In those stories the wolves act like scary,
sneaky, evil creatures. There are many other folk tales from all over the world where wolves are portrayed as silly, helpful or even wise. Are wolves misunderstood? Are they dangerous? What are they really like?
A good way to understand wolves is to learn more about them, not from fairy tales but from scientific research. Let's begin our fact finding mission about wolves now!
Wolves were tamed in the Middle East about 12,000 years ago. At that time, wolves probably ate the scraps of food left by humans. People soon realized that wolves could lead them to food. So humans chose to hand-raise wolf pups who then accepted the humans as their leaders. Domesticated dogs are descended from those wolves.
Wolves are the largest member of the canid family. Two species of wolves live in North America — gray wolves (Canis lupus) and red wolves (Canis rufus). Red wolves are now only found in certain areas of North Carolina, but their behavior, size, and traits are much the same as gray wolves.
On this site, we'll focus on the gray wolf, the one that lives in Idaho.
Where Do Wolves Live?
Gray wolves once lived in habitats all over the northern hemisphere world-wide. During the 1800's the gray wolf ranged throughout North America, while the red wolf inhabited the southeastern U.S.
When settlers first moved into the west there were many animals to hunt, especially buffalo. Slowly the settlers hunted more and more animals until many were almost eliminated. With the deer, bison, elk, and moose much depleted, wolves had less food to eat, so they turned to domestic livestock like cattle and sheep for food. By the late 1800's wolves had been eliminated from most of the lower 48 states by hunters who shot, trapped, and poisoned them.
Today the range of gray wolves in the United States is limited to Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Oregon, and Washington in the west, and the northern portions of Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin in the Midwest.
The gray wolf can actually vary in color from white to gray, brown or black. Depending on the habitat they live in, wolves may have additional names such as “timber wolf,” “Mexican wolf,” or “arctic wolf” even though they are all still gray wolves.
Gray wolves live in forests, mountains and arctic tundra. A large pack's home range or territory covers 100 to 260 square miles in forested areas but about 1,200 square miles on the tundra.
As of 2015, there are an estimated 8,000–11,000 wolves in Alaska, just under 4,000 in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, and about 1,800 in the northern Rocky Mountain region (which includes Idaho). There are about 400,000 wolves in the whole world — but there used to be about 2 million. For current numbers in the United States, take a look at this U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service site.
Wolves in Idaho
According to Idaho Fish and Game, the population of wolves in Idaho has been determined to be 770. They range all the way from the Canadian border south to the Snake River Plain. This was according to a study done in 2014.
You can access this study, along with other information about wolves, their habitat and what to do if you see a wolf, at Idaho Fish and Game's Wolf Management website.
How Wolves Organize Their Families
A pack consists of a male and female parent (the breeding animals) and their pups from the last few years. There can be 2 to 15 animals in a pack, but usually, there are 4 to 7. Sometimes two packs combine. All members of the pack help to raise the 4–7 pups that are born in April or May. The pack works together when hunting for food, feeding the pups, and defending their territory.
The breeding female has her pups in April or May in a den (which could be a rock cave or a hole in the ground). Baby wolves get a lot of loving care from the moment they are born. They are well fed, cleaned, and protected.
Pups leave the den when they are 4 weeks old but stay close by, in case of danger. If the mother goes hunting another member of the pack “baby-sits.” After they are weaned from their mother's milk they eat regurgitated meat brought to them by other pack members.
At about 7–8 months the pups begin traveling as a part of the pack and learn how to hunt. Wolf pups love to play by stalking and pouncing on their brothers and sisters. They also have special wolf “toys,” like skins of animals, bones, and feathers. The skills they learn while playing will help them when they begin to hunt.
Wolves use body language and vocalization to show other wolves how they feel about things. To show anger, a wolf may stick its ears straight up and bare its teeth. Suspicion is shown by pulling the ears back and squinting. When a wolf is afraid, it may flatten its ears against its head.
Wolves defend their home range from intruders by scent-marking, body language, and howling. Listen to some wolf howls. On a calm night, wolf howls can be heard from as far away as 120 miles. Read more about wolf communication.
Adult wolves tend to measure about 4 to 6 feet in length from nose to tail. The male wolf is typically larger than the female. They can weigh between 60 to 110 pounds depending on age and gender. The average wolf stands as much as 32 inches from the ground to its shoulders.
A wolf's tail is bushy and, along with the rest of its body, is covered in a thick coat of soft fur. Over this fine fur is a coat of guard hair which gives the wolf its distinct coloring. A wolf can raise and lower the hair around its mane to show aggression. This mane hair is generally darker than the rest of the coat along with the hair at the tip of the tail. They lose body hair and have a thinner coat during the summer months.
The body of a wolf has a narrow chest, and their front legs appear to turn inward as the front paws are bent outward. They have large paws that seem to land in such a way that the back paws come down in almost the same location as the front paws as they move. We can observe this by looking at their tracks. Their legs are longer in comparison to other animals of the canid family. These long legs allow them to run for short distances at speeds of about 35 mph.
Wolves can live up to 13 years in the wild, but the average life-span is 6–8 years.
What Wolves Eat
Wolves are carnivores. They normally eat large ungulates such as white-tailed deer, mule deer, moose, caribou, elk, Dall sheep, and bighorn sheep. They sometimes eat smaller mammals like rabbits, beavers, voles, lemmings, ground squirrels, and snowshoe hare. They also eat carrion.
A wolf's nose is so sensitive that it can smell prey that is more than a mile away. Wolves can eat about 25% of their body weight in one meal. If you weighed 80 pounds, you would have to eat 20 pounds of food at one meal to eat like a wolf!
Wolves Are Important
Gray wolves are important members of a food chain because they help to control the number of caribou, deer and other ungulates in a habitat. If the ungulate herds become too big there might not be enough food for everyone, and herd members may become sick and weak. Wolves will hunt the sick animals, and this keeps disease from spreading.
Big and Bad?
Wolves are very social animals and, like dogs, they are loyal, affectionate, and highly intelligent. Even though wolves are social among themselves, they usually avoid human contact. In the past 100 years, there have been several reports of human injuries, but no deaths due to wolves.
So it turns out, wolves can be an important member of their habitat. They are not sneaky, evil, or mean. They would probably not even care that a little girl in red clothing was skipping through the forest. In fact, they would be too shy to go near her! And the three pigs would be safe unless the forest was totally out of deer. Which is highly unlikely!!
But even though they are not the animals of fairy tale tradition, they are wild animals and should be respected. They are not pet dogs and you should not try to get close to them. Do not attempt to challenge a wolf to a huffing and puffing competition — or share your picnic basket with them. Just leave them to go about their wolf business.
Top 10 Questions
How much does a grown wolf weigh? How long do they live and are they nocturnal?
The average weight for a wolf in Idaho is somewhere in the 70 to 80-something-pound range. As the wolf gets older, the alpha animals, the leaders of the pack, can get up to 110 to 120 pounds, but that's a pretty big wolf. Most are probably in the 70 to 80-pound range.
Some wolves, if they're lucky will live upwards of 12 to 13 years. Actually, we just recently got the body back of one of the original re-introduced wolves to Idaho. It was the first batch of wolves brought into the state. We estimate he was close to 14 years old. That's kind of at the high end of the range. Generally, they might live to 8 or 9 on average.
Wolves are primarily active at dawn and dusk, more at night than during the day, but they can be active at anytime of the day. (From Curly in Boise, Paige in Mrs. Woodall's class at Hayden Meadows Elementary in Hayden, and Justin from Mrs. Hunt's class at Cynthia Mann Elementary in Boise)
Can wolves really survive 40-below temperatures?
Winter is actually kind of the gravy time for wolves. A lot of people think wild animals have it better off in the summer, and that's true for deer and elk. But when all that snow gets on the ground, a lot of elk and deer have a hard time getting through it and have a hard time finding something to eat. In winter, when the wolves don't have pups and are chasing the deer and elk around, it's a lot easier for them to catch their dinner. They also have heavy fur coats and special paws to help them survive the cold. (Maykayla from Nancy Amos' class at Potlatch Elementary)
Do wolves hunt people?
It's a very rare thing for wolves to attack humans. There was one case up in Canada a couple years ago where it looks like wolves probably killed a person. It was a case where wolves were eating human garbage, and the wolf lost its fear of people. That's something we work hard to avoid in Idaho. There are about 16 or 18 cases in North America where wolves in the last 30 or 40 years have actually bitten people. It's a pretty rare thing. For the most part, wolves attacking people isn't something we're very concerned about in Idaho. We haven't had anybody bit in Idaho or attacked. (From Aaron and Justin in Mrs. Bowe's class at McDonald Elementary in Moscow)
Is it true that wolves howl for their mates?
Actually that's one of the primary ways wolves communicate. Wolves break off from their pack. They'll run off in twos and threes and go and hunt and look for food. When they get split up and want to find each other, they'll howl. They can hear each other from a long ways away. Also sometimes they just like to howl in a pack. They call it a chorus howl. The pack gets together and they all kind of wag their tails and howl and just seem to really enjoy howling. (From Matthew in Mrs. Schweitzer's class at Riverside Elementary in Boise)
Are the wolves really hurting the elk and deer population?
It's a very complicated question. Overall, the answer is no. They're not hurting the deer and elk populations. Based on hunter success and our big game surveys, it seems that elk populations are doing very well. That said, in some places, elk seem to be hurting. There are a few places in the state where elk populations are declining, and any time you have predation, that certainly impacts the prey when they're in a downward spiral. That's not to say that the wolves are the primary cause of the decline, but they're certainly not helping the situation. So I'd say, overall, they haven't had a significant impact, but there are certain instances they can have impacts. (From Lakota in Mrs. Nordby's class at Summerwind Elementary in Boise)
Why do wolves hunt in packs?
Wolves hunt in packs because it's a little easier for two or three wolves to bring down an elk than for just one wolf to take down a big animal. (From Justin at McDonald Elementary in Moscow)
Why did they want to reintroduce wolves in Idaho and where do they live?
Idaho was a great place to reintroduce wolves because it has such a vast, rugged wilderness area in the middle of the state. That's one of the reasons Idaho and Montana and Wyoming were chosen as one of the wolf recovery areas. Most of the wolves we have in Idaho are in the central Idaho wilderness areas. That's really where your core population is. The Frank Church Wilderness and the Selway Wilderness are some of the best wolf habitat we've got in the state. (From Benjamin in Middleton and Jay from Mrs. Whitesell's class in Gooding)
How many different kinds of wolves are there?
There are three recognized species in the world. The most common species is the gray wolf, which is found throughout North America, Europe and Asia. That's the wolf that's found here in Idaho. Another species of the wolf is the red wolf that is found in the southeastern United States. Another kind of wolf is the Ethiopian wolf found in Ethiopia. A lot of people get confused and refer to wolves as the gray wolf and then also what's called the timber wolf, and actually those two are the same species. The timber wolf is the gray wolf. It's just considered a sub-species. Another good point is a lot of people think there's a difference between the wolves re-introduced to Idaho and the wolves that were here before. The wolves are basically the same animal as was here originally. (From Michaela at Gooding Elementary)
How long have wolves been on the endangered species list?
Wolves were pretty much eliminated from the lower 48 states in the 1930s and 1940s. There were a few wolves that hung on in some of the more remote locations of the mountainous states like Colorado. But basically, wolves were eliminated because of conflicts with humans. People perceived them as a threat to their way of life when people made their living raising livestock and such. So basically, people felt that the wolf needed to go. The last wolf in the lower 48 states was noted back in the 1930s and 1940s. Then, in the mid-1980s, people started talking about trying to re-establish wolf populations here in the lower 48. Congress decided to re-establish the wolf population and so, starting in 1995, wildlife experts brought wolves into Idaho and Yellowstone National Park. (Mark from White Pine Elementary in Boise)
How many wolves are in a pack?
On average here in Idaho, a typical pack is anywhere from 8 to 10 wolves, but that can range quite a bit. I think the highest documented pack size was 18. At that point, some wolves go off and start a new pack. Typically, with what's called a breeding pair, you're just going to have the two wolves, and then they'll have pups and initiate that pack. (Kathy from McDonald Elementary in Moscow)