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Biological Overview of the Gray Wolf

Catherine J. Archibald

Animal Legal and Historical Center
Publish Date:
Place of Publication: Michigan State University College of Law
Printable Version

Biological Overview of the Gray Wolf

Brief Biology of the Gray Wolf

Gray wolves (Canis lupus) are the largest wild members of Canidea, the dog family.  68 FR 15804 (Apr. 1, 2003).  They range from between 40 and 175 pounds, depending upon sex and subspecies, and their fur is often gray, but can range from between white to black.  Wolves mostly prey on medium to large mammals, including elk, deer, and moose, although they have been known to eat small mammals, birds, and large invertebrates.  Id.  at 15804-05.  When humans are around, gray wolves sometimes prey on domestic animals such as cattle, sheep and dogs.  Wolves are social creatures, usually living in packs containing 2 to 12 members, however, pack numbers have been observed to reach as many as 37 members.  Packs usually contain a breeding pair and its current offspring, the breeding pair’s offspring from the year before, and sometimes unrelated wolves.  Packs commonly occupy and defend territories between 20 and 240 square miles from other packs and individual wolves, although territories as large as over 1000 square miles have been observed.  Normally the breeding pair in a pack produces a litter of between 4 and 6 pups in April or May.  Yearling pups stay with the natal pack or disperse as lone wolves to distances of up to 500 miles away.  Lone wolves either remain as lone wolves, or find a mate and unoccupied territory and produce litters of their own.  Id.

Brief Natural History of the Gray Wolf

Like humans, gray wolves are amazingly adaptable and can live in a variety of climates and conditions.  Historically, gray wolves occupied varied landscapes and climates, living throughout most of North America, Europe, and Asia.  68 FR 15804 (Apr. 1, 2003).   In North America their range spanned from as far north as Alaska, Canada, and Greenland, to as far south as Southern Mexico.  The only areas in the lower 48 states of the United States thought not historically occupied by the gray wolf were the Southeastern United States (an area encompassing parts or all of 16 different states from as far north as Virginia to as far west as parts of Texas see (which is instead populated by the Red Wolf (Canis rufus)), and extremely arid areas and mountaintops of the Western United States. 

The Europeans who settled the United States brought with them a culture of fear and hatred for wolves.  See Wyoming v. Dept. of the Interior, 360 F. Supp. 2d 1214, 1218 (D. Wyo. 2005).  Following in the footsteps of their ancestors the ancient Greeks, who had offered bounties on wolves, the settlers’ new State and Federal governments also had bounties on wolves.  Id. at 1218 n.1, 68 FR 15805.  This encouraged widespread persecution of the wolf which included poisoning, trapping, and shooting wolves.  By the early 1900s the gray wolf had almost entirely disappeared from the lower 48 states of the United States due to human activity. 

For a brief summary of wolves and the laws protecting them, click here.

For a legal overview, click here.

For an in-depth legal discussion, see the Detailed Discussion.

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