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 mammals that belong to the dog family known as “Canid,” which also includes coyotes, jackals, foxes, dingoes and domestic dogs.
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
Wolves live in packs. The strongest and smartest male of the pack is the leader. He is called the “alpha” male. There is also an “alpha” female, but the “alpha” male is dominant over the entire pack. Packs are very organized. The rank of a wolf in the dominance order of the pack can often be seen in the way it carries its tail. A more dominant wolf carries its tail high. A less dominant wolf carries it low.
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.