Fun, Facts, and Figures
Gray Wolf Fun Facts!
1. Wolf packs are (usually) family: The parents or breeding pair lead the offspring, from newborns to near adults.
2. Wolves Play: Even adult wolves make “toys” of sticks or other found miscellaneous flotsam-and-jetsam. “Tug of War” is a favorite.
3. On the road again: A gray wolf’s territory can span from 50 to 950 square miles (130 – 2,470 sq. km)
4. Helpless as a baby: Gray wolf pups are born blind and deaf.
5. Hungry as a wolf: Wolves do prey most on the older or weaker big ungulates – but they sometimes eat mice, rabbits, and other small creatures.
6. The big bad … who? Wild wolves are quite shy. Especially with humans, they will more often avoid people than appear and frighten them.
Most commonly, the gray wolf is called timber wolf or plains wolf in the U.S., but they have many other names usually attached to the subspecies or local to the regions they populate. See the end of the article for more information on subspecies.
Grey Wolf Population
ICUN Red List Status: Least Concern
Gray Wolf Numbers are Confusing
The designation of “Least Concern” a general assessment for total worldwide Canis lupus population and does not consider the status of the different subspecies or populations.
Count All Gray Wolves Together...
Worldwide up to date population numbers are challenging to find. Existing figures do not necessarily consider all gray wolves on all continents. Statistics reflecting the status of particular subspecies are even more elusive. A region’s wolf population numbers gleaned from one source might be an amalgam of multiple subspecies or even different species lumped together under the general heading, “wolves” - another source might identify the same animals very differently.
...Or By Sub-species?
Much of the numbers confusion is due to the continually evolving understanding of Canis lupus and its subspecies, making any previous total worldwide gray wolf counts, if they existed, obsolete. Where reliable numbers or other information is available for a local population(s) or subspecies, it will be noted.
How Many Gray Wolves are Left In the Wild
At one time the gray wolf was the most wildly distributed land mammal on the planet. They spanned the Northern Hemisphere thriving in habitats as diverse as the Arctic, Canadian boreal forests, and the dry, desert edges of Mexico and the Middle East. Almost anyplace a man in the northern hemisphere could reach, gray wolves were already there. Then they began to disappear.
In North America where wolves numbers were once estimated in the hundreds of thousands, today there are only 6,000 + in the lower 48 states and somewhere between another 7,700 – 11,000 in Alaska. In Canada, wild gray wolves may number as many as 55,000-60,000; but in Mexico, there were only thought to be 19 wolves as of early 2016, and even this population is an increase.
Until recently, there was a small, but important population of wild wolves living on Michigan’s Isle Royale, in Lake Superior. It is thought that the first wolves made their way to the island by ice-bridge over 50 years ago. They joined a moose population that, it is largely assumed, arrived by swimming from the mainland. These animals became the subject of what is thought to be the longest continuous study of any predator-system in the world. Unfortunately, the wolves are dying out from a physical defect caused by inbreeding. With only two wolves recorded in April 2016, the Isle Royale wolves may not exist at all by the time you read this, and the unprecedented study will come to an end. Still, in some parts of their U.S and Mexican range their numbers are increasing.
In western Europe, where they had been driven nearly to extinction, a new attitude of co-existence with wild nature is providing a more promising situation for the wolves and other large predators and birds - see below: Encouraging News. The Wolves and Humans Foundation estimates an increase in the European wolf population upwards to a total of 16,000 -18,000 individuals. Unfortunately, the populations are separated, and many consist of only 100-2,000 wolves.
Across their Asian range, wolves are still widely hunted as vermin.
In Russia perhaps only 30,000 remain, but if included in the total number of wild wolves in Asia there may be as many as 89,000 – 105,000.
Grey Wolf Conservation
Since the Middle Ages myth and misunderstanding have driven man’s relationship with wolves. Unfortunately, man tends to kill what he does not understand.
When the first ships left Europe for the New World, wolves in most of the Old World, including Great Britain, Germany, France, Sweden, and Norway, had already been eradicated. In Asia, the last native Japanese wolves are long extinct: Hokkaido Wolf, since 1889, Honshu wolf, since 1905, and there has not been a wild Korean wolf seen in South Korea since 1968.
In the U.S. - Protected But Not Entirely Safe
Wolves are now protected in most of the contiguous 48 U.S. states and Western Europe, although incidents of wolf killing by ranchers and others are still regularly documented. In the U.S. there continue to be periodic efforts to overturn the wolf’s protected status.
During the 2014-15 season in the state of Idaho alone, licensed hunters killed 250 wolves, and the state took another 72. Aerial gunners shot 19 of these in Lolo Elk Management Zone of Clearwater National Forest on behalf of the Wildlife Services Department of the U.S Department of Agriculture.
As of February 2016, wolf hunting is legal in Idaho, Montana, and Alaska. All three states have highly regulated hunting seasons so as to maintain viable wolf populations. Representatives of the International Wolf Center advise us that, "their populations have remained stable despite the hunting which is regulated to just take the surplus animals."
In Wyoming, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan the wolf has been re-listed as an endangered species and hunting is currently suspended. In part of Oregon wolves have been de-listed but are still protected, and hunting is not allowed. In Arizona and New Mexico, the reintroduction of the Mexican gray wolf into the wild continues to be a contentious and highly litigated issue, but the reintroduced wolf population there has reached 100. Poaching and illegal killing of wolves continue in most protected areas.
Wolves are an apex predator. Recently, one of the best things to happen for nature, wildlife conservation, and specifically wolves, was the discovery of the link between apex predators and a healthy, bio-diverse environment: the trophic cascade effect. The trophic cascade effect has been the most extensively studied in Yellowstone National Park. Although scientists disagree on many of the results, and the impact that that these predators are having on the ecosystem continues to be closely monitored, most researchers agree there are ecological benefits to reintroduction.
What is the Trophic Cascade Effect? Watch the video below:
Yellowstone's Wolf Reintroduction Experiment.
With the establishment in 1872 of Yellowstone as the world’s first national park, the U.S. Department of Interiors became protectors of the land; unfortunately, this safeguard did not extend to the wildlife. By 1930 wolves had been eradicated in the park.
Note: not all researchers feel as strongly about the effect of the wolves on Yellowstone as the first video above implies. In the interest of balance, please also view the video at right, The Wolves of Yellowstone, for a more reserved view.
Trophic Cascade - The Case for Apex Predators
By 1995, the time of the first wolf's reintroduction, the ecologically unbalanced park, had changed – and not for the better. Weaker, less healthy elk herds, were out of control. Unchecked ungulate overgrazing diminished aspen and willow. Fewer and shorter aspens and willow trees meant reduced songbird-nesting areas hence an overall reduction in the songbirds themselves.
Similar impacts were noted on trout populations. Trout thrive in clear cold streams, but the overgrazed river and stream banks allowed significantly more silt and mud into the streams and the lack of tree shade resulted in warmer water.
After 20 years, wolves have helped reduce elk numbers, and there is some evidence that aspen and willow may be increasing. Over a long enough period, perhaps in the next few decades, other changes such as more songbirds might be documented.
In December 2014, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reinstated Canis lupus as “protected” (in much but not all of the country) under the Endangered Species Act.
Captive Breeding for a Sub-Species on the Brink
On the other hand, local conservation support is also gaining momentum. In April 2015, against much opposition, two more adult Mexican wolves were released from captive breeding programs into Arizona’s Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, raising their total wild population to at least 97 individuals and possibly more than 100. And in November 2016, it was announced that at least two Mexican wolf cubs, also from a captive breeding program, were released into wild litters and are surviving.
The Wilding of Europe
The European Union Habitat Directive of 1992 encouraged an attitude of“land sharing” between humans and large predators (wolves, bears, big cats, etc.). This approach led to an increase in wildlife, including apex predators, a healthier environment, and a new understanding of, and solutions for, wildlife/human conflict. Wolves are recovering and even returning to some of their historic ranges.
Gray wolves can now be seen in 28 European countries, many of which are developing responsible wildlife tourism industries similar to that in Africa; in fact, wolf “safaris” are becoming quite popular.
Show and Tell
We want to hear about your gray wolf adventures and so do other wildlife lovers!
Send us your stories and photos and we will publish them as possible.
Stories & Information
Ian A. Johnson:
Life, Wildlife and Wild-Life
Wolf Conservation Center
South Salem, New York
Special thanks to Maggie Howell
Explorers Club member and avid conservationist for her help and inspiration.