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Wolf Info
Northwestern Gray Wolf (Canis lupus occidentalis)

Other common names: Alaskan, Mackenzie Valley

Description: This subspecies of gray wolf has a coat of black, white, gray, tan and even blue-ish. Gray or black wolves are the most common color phase found to occur. They typically stand about 30 inches at the shoulder and weigh between 85 and 115 pounds, although they can weigh as much as 145 pounds.

Range and Habitat: The Northwestern wolf, more commonly known as the Rocky Mountain wolf inhabits parts of the western United States, western Canada, and Alaska, including Unimak Island of the Aleutians, and is the sub-species that was reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park (YNP) and central Idaho in 1995-6.

Territory size in Alaska averages 600 square miles, while wolf packs in YNP average 9.2 wolves with an average territory of 348 square miles.

Behavior and Communication: The wolf pack is one of nature's most sophisticated social orders, as well as one of the most intensively studied. A wolf pack is usually a family group of five to eight animals, usually consisting of a pair of breeding adults and their young of 1 or 2 years old. The breeding pair is likely to be the oldest, largest, and strongest wolves in the pack. They are known as the dominant wolves and are usually the only members of the pack to produce pups. Any wolf can become dominant. To do so, it must find an unoccupied territory and a member of the opposite sex with which to mate. Or, more rarely, it moves into a pack with a missing dominant wolf and take its place, or perhaps kills the dominant wolf and usurps its mate.

Wolves use body language to convey the rules of the pack and rule number one says that the pack is made up of leaders and followers. The dominant male and female are in charge of the pack. To communicate dominance, they carry their tails high and stand tall. Less dominant wolves exhibit submissive behavior by holding their tails down and often lower their bodies while pawing at the higher-ranking wolves. The pack has a complex social hierarchy maintained through a variety of vocalizations, body postures, and scent marking.

Wolves have keen senses of sight, hearing, and smell and can travel at approximately 5 miles per hour for long periods of time while hunting or traveling within their territory. A wolf pack may spend 8 - 10 hours a day on the move and may cover 40 miles a day during winter hunts. Wolves can reach a top speed of about 40 miles per hour for short periods of time.

The average pack size for the Northwestern wolf is generally 6-12 wolves, with some packs as large as 20-30 with one in YNP documented at 37.

Diet: The prey base of the Northwestern wolf includes a variety of hoofed mammals and other rodents, such as moose, bison, elk, caribou, Dall sheep, Sitka Black-tailed deer, mountain goats, beaver, salmon, vole, lemmings, ground squirrels and snowshoe hare.

Breeding and Maturation: The pack's social structure generally determines which wolves breed, usually only the dominant wolves or breeding pair mate and produce a single litter of pups. However when prey in winter is abundant, a wolf pack may occasionally have multiple litters born that spring. In northern climates such as Minnesota, the mating season is usually early January through late February, with a litter of 4 to 6 pups born 63 days later in a den. A den may be located in a rock crevice or a hole dug by the parents or even a tree stump. The pups are born deaf and blind, but can hear within a 12 to 14 days. After 3 to 6 weeks, the pups usually leave the den and begin to investigate their surroundings, staying close to the safety of the den. As the pups mature, the pack moves to a more open area or "rendezvous site" within their territory. By fall the pups are large enough to travel and hunt with the pack. Wolves generally reach adult size by six to eight months of age and are usually sexually mature by 22 months.

Miscellaneous: Legal shooting and trapping of wolves occurs throughout Alaska. Over the past decade 11 to 20 percent of Alaska's wolf population has been harvested each year. Studies indicate that wolves could sustain an annual harvest of 30 to 40 percent without decreasing the population. The wolf population in Alaska is estimated at 7,500-11,000 wolves. The population in the northern Rocky Mountains (Greater Yellowstone Area, NW Montana, and Idaho) is estimated to be around 1200 and increasing (2006 USFWS pop. estimate).


Where to see a Gray Wolf in the U.S.


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