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Stable in the Wild


(Canis lupus)


gray wolf range map

Classification and Range

Wolves belong to the order Carnivora and the family Canidae, which includes 36 species in 16 genera. Canids originated in North America during the Eocene period, 54 to 38 million years ago. They evolved for fast pursuit of prey in open grasslands. In this family, species range in size from the fennec fox to its largest member, the gray wolf.Wolves once roamed almost the entire world north of the equator. This is no longer the case. In North America, gray wolves, also called timber wolves, have been hunted near to extinction in the United States with the exception of Alaska and small populations in Minnesota and Wisconsin. There is still a healthy population in Canada, but only unconfirmed remnant populations are thought to exist today in Mexico.


In the past, gray wolves were at home everywhere except in tropical regions and in deserts. They flourished in forests, and on prairies, grasslands and tundra. They continue to live in these areas, but in far less numbers.

In March 1998, 11 Mexican gray wolves were released in eastern Arizona. The range of these wolves once extended from southwest United States to central Mexico. Gray wolves are currently reintroducing themselves naturally in the northern Rocky Mountains and North Cascades. Human efforts over the last few years to reintroduce wolves into the Rocky Mountains have also been successful.


Head and body: 40-64 inches (102-163 cm)
Tail: 14-22 inches (36-56 cm).


Adult male: 85-115 pounds (39-52 kg) and can reach 130 pounds (59 kg); adult females are about 50-100 pounds (23-45 kg) lighter and rarely weigh more than 110 pounds (50 kg).

Life Expectancy

Wolves live for 10-15 years in the wild, but average 25 years at zoos.


In the wild: Wolves are carnivores. In Alaska, moose, deer or caribou are their primary food, with Dall sheep being important in some areas. During the summer, they include voles, lemmings, ground squirrels, snowshoe hares, beavers and occasionally birds and fish in their diet.

At the zoo: Whole chickens and rabbits, beef, knuckle bones and a few trout

Photo by Mat Hayward/Woodland Park Zoo.


Wolves breed in February and March, and normally mate for life. Litters averaging about five pups are born in May or early June, in a den excavated as much as 10 feet (3 m) into well-drained soil. Adult wolves center their activities around dens while traveling as much as 20 miles (32 km) away in search of food, which is regularly brought back to the den. Wolf pups are weaned gradually during midsummer. In mid or late summer, pups are usually moved some distance away from the den; by early winter they can travel and hunt with adult pack members.

Life Cycle



Wolves are highly social animals, usually living in packs that include parents, pups born that year, some yearlings from the year before and often other adults. Social order is characterized by a dominance hierarchy with a separate ranking order among males and females.

Although pack size usually ranges from six to 12 animals, packs of as many as 20 or 30 wolves sometimes occur. In most areas, wolf packs tend to remain within a home range. In Alaska, the home range may include some 200 to 600 square miles (520-1560 km2) of habitat.

Wolf Talk

Wolves keep in touch by howling. This type of communication among wolves has several meanings. It serves as a warning to other packs to stay away from their hunting ground. A howl is used to call the pack together after a hunt is over. Sometimes wolves howl just for the pleasure of it, and to reinforce ties between members of the pack.

Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo

Location at the Zoo

The zoo's gray wolves can be viewed from a number of locations at the zoo's award-winning Northern Trail. Woodland Park Zoo has exhibited wolves for over 50 years. Since 1976, 24 wolves have been born here. Other mammals that can be seen at the Northern Trail are brown bear, river otter, arctic fox, elk, and mountain goat.

Conservation Connection

Wolves are considered endangered in 47 of the lower 48 states (the exception is Minnesota, where they are considered threatened). Wolves are in dire peril due to human encroachment and unwarranted fears about these predators. For example, by 1930, gray wolves were eliminated from Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, primarily because of conflicts with livestock ranchers. As a result of Canadian restoration programs, wolves returned to northwest Montana beginning in the 1980s. It took nearly 20 years of testy debate before a compromise allowed the reintroduction of wolves to central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park in 1995. Headed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, reintroduction efforts were successful. By 1997, there were about 300 wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.

In December 1998, however, a Wyoming judge ruled that the experimental reintroduction of wolves into central Idaho and Yellowstone was illegal and should be revoked, and ordered all reintroduced wolves removed from the wild. The judge stayed his order, pending an appeal from the U.S. Government.

On January 13, 2000, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals oveturned the 1998 ruling. The ruling stated "We reserve the order and judgement of the district court, vacate the district court's stay order, and remand with instructions to the district court to enter an order upholding the challenged wolf reintroduction rules... Discerning no conflict between the challenged experimental population rules and the Endangered Species Act, we reserve the district court's order and judgement." The court solidly supported the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's wolf reintroduction program.

In 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to remove gray wolves from the federal list of species protected under the Endangered Species Act. A debate surrounds whether gray wolf populations have recovered sufficiently enough, across a wide range of suitable habitat in their home ranges, to survive for the long-term. Scientists with expertise in wolf biology and recovery have made the case to the U.S. Department of the Interior that gray wolves in many states may not be able to sustain viable recovery in the face of the private and state-condoned hunting that will increase once the wolves are delisted. At present, removal from the endangered species list is too great a setback for this species, which is so valuable to ecosystem health. In recent years, population dispersal westward has resulted in wolves slowly repopulating the North Cascades of Washington. Their future hangs in the balance. A federal policy decision is slated to be made in 2014. See Woodland Park Zoo’s official statement on the proposal to delist gray wolves. 

How You Can Help!

The effort to save endangered species requires cooperation and support at the international, national, regional and individual levels. You can help in this cause. Join and become active in a conservation organization of your choice. Don't buy products made from wild animal parts. Let your elected representatives know your views about protecting endangered species and wild habitats.

Contact Woodland Park Zoo at to find out about ways you can support conservation programs at the zoo. Discover more about wolves by contacting Wolf Haven at International through its Web site: Learn other ways you can help conserve wildlife and the habitats they require for survival by visiting our How You Can Help page.

Sources and Suggested Reading


For Kids!

Mech, David L. 1991. The Way of the Wolf. Voyageur Press, Stillwater, MN. 120 p.

Nowak, Ronald M. ed. 1991. Walker's Mammals of the World. 5th Edition. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London. 1629 p.

For Kids!

Zoobooks. 1998. Wolves. Wildlife Education Ltd, San Diego, CA. 18 p.


Gray Wolf Taxonomy

Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Family: Canidae
Genus: Canis
Species: C. lupus

Gray Wolf Fascinating Facts

  • Wolves have an incredible sense of smell. With the right wind, they can detect moose 1.5 miles (2.4 km) away!
  • Wolves hunt prey up to 10 times their size and can gorge 20 pounds (9 kg) of food in a single feeding!
  • A wolf's powerful jaws can exert about 1,500 pounds per square inch, about twice that of a dog!
  • During the hunt, each wolf of a pack plays a crucial role in capturing their prey!