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Gray Wolf

Scientific Name: Canis lupus

New York Status: Endangered, Extirpated - Rare Visitor
Federal Status: Endangered

Drawing of Gray Wolf

On This Page:

  • Description
  • Life History
  • Distribution and Habitat
  • Status and Management
  • Distinguishing Wolves from Coyotes

Description

Gray wolves, also called timber wolves, are the largest wild member of the dog family. Males are larger than females, with females typically weighing 50-100 pounds and males weighing 70-145 pounds, depending on geographic locations. Wolves generally measure 5-6 feet from nose to tip of tail and stand 27-33 inches at the shoulder. The fur is usually a mix of gray and brown with a buffy underside, though their coat color can vary from white to gray or brown to black. The ears are proportionally small and rounded, and they have a short, blocky snout.

Wolf taxonomy in North America, particularly eastern North America, is debated. It has previously been widely accepted based on morphology that the 'eastern wolf' is a subspecies of the gray wolf (Canis lupus) and the 'red wolf' is a separate species (Canis rufus). Either or both of these species may have resided in New York in the past. However, recent genetic studies have challenged this conclusion. Some scientists believe that the eastern wolf (now principally called the Algonquin wolf) found primarily in Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario should be considered a distinct species (Canis lycaon; Rutledge 2015). However; others have found that both eastern wolves and red wolves are not distinct species at all, but rather admixtures (have a hybrid ancestry) of gray wolf and coyote (vonHoldt 2016). Both red wolves and Algonquin wolves are intermediate in size between the coyote and gray wolf, with females averaging around 55 pounds and males averaging around 65 pounds. The Great Lakes wolves found in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin are generally believed to be hybrids of Algonquin wolves and the gray wolves of western North America, although research on this matter is continually evolving.

Life History

Wolves usually live in family groups or packs of 2-8 individuals, though some packs contain 20 or more members. Packs are territorial, frequenting areas of 20-200+ square miles (51-555+ sq km). A dominance hierarchy exists within each pack. Generally, only the dominant male and female breed, though exceptions exist. Pups are born from early April to early May. Litter size ranges from 4-7. Offspring remain within the pack or move out to become "lone wolves." These individuals are nomadic, some living in areas over 1,000 square miles in size. If a member of the opposite sex is encountered and suitable range exists, the pair may start a pack of their own.

Prey species include deer, moose, beaver, and sometimes domestic livestock and pets. Generally, wolves target the easiest prey including the old, weak, sick or disabled individuals. Wolves are not normally detrimental to populations of prey species. However, some studies in Alaska with caribou and in northern Minnesota with deer indicate that wolves have eliminated or are limiting their prey in parts of their range.

Distribution and Habitat

Gray wolves have a circumpolar distribution that includes North America, Europe and Asia. In North America, gray wolves once roamed from the Arctic down to Mexico. They were found in a variety of habitats, including deciduous and coniferous forests, mountainous terrain, grasslands, tundra, and desert.

Extermination programs and loss of habitat led to the wolf being extirpated from most of the contiguous United States, including New York, by the early 1900s. Populations remained in Alaska, Canada, and northeast Minnesota. With protection under the federal Endangered Species Act and with the assistance of a reintroduction program in Yellowstone National Park, gray wolves have drastically expanded their range and numbers in the contiguous U.S. Today, gray wolves exist primarily in two large subpopulations in the contiguous U.S., one in the western Great Lakes area (the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and northern Minnesota and Wisconsin) and in the northern Rocky Mountains (Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and portions of eastern Washington and Oregon). Both larger U.S. populations are also connected to wolf populations in Canada. Smaller wolf populations also exist in central Washington, central Oregon, and northern California.

A small but growing population of the Mexican wolf subspecies (Canis lupus baileyi) exists in Arizona and New Mexico. This subpopulation was nearly completely eliminated from the wild by the 1970s. A captive breeding program was established and the first captive-bred Mexican wolves were released in 1998. Today, this population numbers more than 200 wolves.

There is also a very small (less than 20 individuals) population of red wolves in eastern North Carolina. Red wolves were declared extinct in the wild in 1980 after the last remaining population in Texas and Louisiana disappeared. A captive breeding program had been established using wolves captured from that population in the 1970s. Some of these animals were later released into an Experimental Population in eastern North Carolina. The project was originally a success, with around 120 wild red wolves present in 2012. However, the population then experienced a steep decline, due largely to human-caused mortality (vehicle collisions and illegal killing) and hybridization with coyotes.

Status and Management

Before European settlement, wolves were common throughout New York. However, loss of habitat and unregulated hunting led to wolves being extirpated from the State by 1900. Since that time, there have been occasional reports of wolves in the State. Most of these have been cases of mistaken identity with eastern coyotes (see Distinguishing Wolves from Coyotes section below), domestic dogs or illegal wolf-dog hybrids, but there have been 3 confirmed wolves in New York over the last 25 years.

In 2001, a hunter shot a large (99-pound) male canine in Saratoga County, near the Adirondack Park boundary. Genetic testing proved that this animal was a gray wolf, and the animal's remains were confiscated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Further research conducted by scientists at the New York State Museum found that this wolf was apparently eating a wild diet. The scientists developed a new carbon and nitrogen isotope test that was able to distinguish between commercial and wild-type diets in canines. The test is based on the principle 'you are what you eat'; canines raised in captivity that eat a diet consisting of commercial dog food or grain-fed livestock will have different isotope ratios than a canine eating a wild-type diet. By testing different samples (hair, tooth, and bone), this test can distinguish what type of diet an animal had throughout their life. The test was initially used on eight different wolves killed in the Northeast since the 1980s. Out of these, 5 wolves came back as eating a captive diet and were determined to be released or escaped captive animals. Three of the wolves, including the one from Saratoga County and two from Vermont, had isotope values consistent with a wild-type diet. The skull and pelt of the Saratoga County wolf are currently on display at the New York State Museum.

In 2005, a nearly 100-pound canine was shot after killing a domestic dog in Cayuga County. DNA tests were conducted by UC Davis and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. These tests determined that the animal was a wolf. Bone and hair samples from this animal were analyzed in the isotope study described above; the tests determined that the animal had been eating a commercial diet. DNA later linked the canine to hair from a nearby pen, further indicating that it was a captive animal.

In 2021, a deer hunter in Otsego County shot and killed what he believed to be a coyote during the coyote hunting season. Closer inspection concluded that the animal was unusually large for a coyote, and the hunter contacted DEC. The male canine weighed 84 pounds, and samples were taken for DNA analysis. An initial DNA analysis concluded that the animal was an Eastern coyote with significant wolf ancestry; however, two follow-up analyses concluded that the animal was a wolf. The DNA tests likely provided different results because of the complicated nature of eastern canine DNA and the fact that a significant amount of interbreeding has occurred between coyotes and wolves throughout their ranges. However, based on the physical characteristics of the canine and the DNA results, DEC has concluded that this animal was a wolf.

A robust, genome-wide ancestry analysis concluded that the Otsego County wolf likely originated from the Great Lakes wolf population, which inhabits parts of Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. To shed more light on the animal's background, a tooth was submitted to a lab for aging and isotope analyses to determine dietary history were completed on bone, tooth, and hair samples. These analyses found that the animal was a 4-year-old adult male wolf that had a diet consistent with that of a wild canine throughout its life. It is possible that this animal escaped from captivity where it had been fed a "wild" diet (e.g., road-killed animals), or that it was a free-ranging wolf that may have dispersed from the Great Lakes population, a distance of over 500 miles. The average Great Lakes wolf dispersal distance is only approximately 50 miles, though long-distance movements have been documented in the past.

Beyond these occasional instances, there is no evidence of a breeding population of wolves in New York. Currently, the probability of a wild wolf population becoming established in the state is very low. The Otsego County and Saratoga County wolves remain the only two instances of a potentially wild wolf dispersing into the state. Establishment of a self-sustaining wolf population in New York faces several challenges including hybridization with the state's widespread and abundant coyote population and the requirement for female wolves, which do not disperse as far as males, to consistently move into the state.

Any gray wolves that do show up in New York are protected under both the federal Endangered Species Act and New York's Endangered and Threatened Species Regulations. It is illegal to kill a wolf in New York. DEC has issued guidance to hunters and trappers illustrating the differences between coyotes and wolves and to avoid harvesting large canines that may be wolves. Any unusually large canines should be reported to DEC for examination and analysis. DEC will remain vigilant for the presence of wolves in NY and will respond accordingly if additional animals are documented in the State.

Distinguishing Wolves from Coyotes

After the wolf was extirpated from New York around 1900, another canine species moved into the state. The coyote (Canis latrans) first became established in northern New York after crossing the St. Lawrence and spreading into the Adirondacks in the 1930s and 1940s. Over the next 40-50 years, coyotes drastically increased their range in New York. Today, coyotes can be found across the state, including parts of New York City and Long Island.

As coyotes moved east from their historic range in the Great Plains, they interbred with wolves and domestic dogs. Genetic research has found that New York coyotes have some wolf ancestry, averaging around 65% coyote, 25% wolf, and 10% domestic dog. This mixed ancestry has resulted in Northeastern coyotes, referred to as eastern coyotes, being larger than their western relatives. However, eastern coyotes remain significantly smaller than wolves, rarely exceeding 50 pounds and generally standing less than 2 feet tall at the shoulder.

In addition to size, facial features can also be used to distinguish wolves and coyotes. Wolves have proportionally small, rounded ears and a short, blocky snout. Coyotes have larger, more pointed ears (though they can appear rounded in winter when coyotes have a thick winter coat). They have a long, narrow, pointed snout. Coyotes also have smaller feet than wolves; their tracks typically measure 3 inches long by 2 inches wide. In comparison, wolf tracks are usually about 5 inches long by 4 inches wide.

If you believe that you have seen a wolf and have evidence (pictures of the animal, tracks or scat), please contact DEC's Bureau of Wildlife. Please make sure that photos include something for scale (a quarter or dollar bill) whenever possible, as it can be extremely difficult to judge size from photographs and may be impossible to identify canines with certainty without a measure of scale.

Hunters and trappers are reminded to use care in identifying any large canids encountered. While large coyotes (50+ pounds) have been reported in New York, they are uncommon. Canines over 50 pounds may be a wolf, wolf-hybrid, or domestic dog, all of which are protected under New York law. If you have a canine in a trap that is over 4.5 feet long and over 50 pounds, contact DEC before dispatching the animal (1-844-332-3267). Hunters, if you harvest an animal that meets these specifications, contact DEC at the above number.

comparison of wolves and coyotes features and tracks

Life History

Wolves are social animals, living in family groups or packs generally consisting of 2-8 members, although packs of over 20 have been reported. Packs typically consist of a dominant, breeding male and female, their offspring, and other non-breeding adults. There is a dominance hierarchy in each pack, and generally only the dominant pair breeds, although there are exceptions.

Pups are born from early April through early May, and under good conditions litter sizes average four to seven. Pups depend on their mother's milk for the first month. They are weaned around week five, and first emerge from the den at about three months old. The entire pack participates in raising the pups, feeding them regurgitated meat once they are weaned. At about two months of age, the natal den, which is often a hole in the ground (but may also be a rock crevice, hollow log, under a stump, or other protected place), is abandoned and the young are moved to one of a series of "rendezvous sites".

By the time the pups are seven to eight months old they are almost fully grown and begin traveling with the adults. Some offspring may remain with the pack, while others will disperse between their first and second years. Dispersing wolves will either live nomadically as lone wolves covering large areas (1,000 mi2 or more) or will mate and establish a new territory.

Wolves mature in their second year, but most do not breed until their third. Mates sometimes form lifelong bonds, although pack turnover is high. Wild wolves generally live between 8-13 years of age and are capable of breeding past 10 years of age.

Wolves travel over large areas, sometimes as far as 30 miles a day. Packs maintain a territory that can shift seasonally or year to year. Territory size seems to be dependent on prey availability, with smaller territories in areas with abundant prey. Pack territories may overlap, although the packs will not use the same areas at the same time.

More About the Gray Wolf

Gray Wolf Status Assessment (PDF)
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Gray Wolf Species Profile (leaves DEC website)
Stable Isotope Report on Otsego Co Wolf (PDF)


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