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Wolves and humans have the most adversarial history of the large carnivores. Many children’s stories and traditional folklore portray wolves as dangerous and evil, often emphasizing intensely negative emotions that the animals ignite. Once very common throughout the entire Northern Hemisphere, wolves were hunted and trapped to near extinction in the Lower 48 by the 1930s, and only through federal protections and reintroductions have wolves been able to recolonize habitat fragments of their historic habitat. Now in the Lower 48 states, wolves are found in the Great Lakes area, the Northern Rockies, and maintain a small population of Mexican wolves in the Southwestern United States. In recent years, there have also been wolves moving out of the Northern Rockies region and toward the Pacific Coast, re-inhabiting areas of Washington, Oregon, and even California. Sadly, a small population of Red wolves in South Carolina, surviving primarily from a captive breeding program, is in danger of becoming extinct.

Photo by Diane Hargreaves

Wolves are the ancestors of the domestic dog, and are the largest member of the canine family. They require large areas of contiguous habitat that can include forest and mountainous terrain. As top dog and apex predator, wolves play a key role in keeping ecosystems healthy by keeping deer and elk populations in check, which benefits many other plant and animal species. They prey on deer, elk, rabbit, beaver, and other small mammals. The carcasses of their prey help to distribute nutrients and also provide food for other species like grizzly bears and scavenger birds.

Wolves live, travel, and hunt in packs. Packs include an alpha male, an alpha female, and their offspring. The alphas are the leaders and serve the pack by tracking and hunting prey, choosing den sites, and establishing territory. Packs are highly social and hierarchical. Pack members will bark, whine, growl and howl to communicate with one another, and they can also be very playful. Conversely, wolves kill one another as well, particularly from other packs.

Wolves rarely attack humans; however, they will attack domestic animals, especially cattle and sheep. Wolf-livestock conflict prevention is critical to helping people aspire to live with wolves.

Fun Fact: Contrary to popular belief, wolves do not actually howl at the moon. They are most active at dawn and dusk, and often howl more when it’s lighter at night, which usually occurs when the moon is full.

Did you know: wolves have unique fingerprints just like humans that can be used to tell them apart

Wolf Historic and Current Range