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Gray Wolf, Canis lupus

Geography 323: Biogeography Spring, 1996 Dr. Cathy Whitlock

Group Members:

Melanie Lee Wadsworth 	Human Impact
Erin Leslie Barnhart 	Current Status	
Joseph Ty Vrudny 	Modern Distribution
Owen Robert Smith 	Biogeographic History
Paul Schroder   	Life History

Human Impact

Human impact has seriously altered the distribution of the gray wolf. Currently, the only distributions of the gray wolf that resemble those of the past are found in areas that haven't been heavily impacted by humans. These areas include Alaska (fig.1), parts of Canada (fig.1) and the former USSR. According to Alderton (1994) the gray wolf's range is "now significantly reduced, particularly in Europe" (fig.2) and he notes, "the gray wolf still has one of the widest distributions of all mammals, occurring throughout the northern hemisphere above 15 degrees N latitude." The gray wolf is endangered in Mexico and all lower 48 states except Minnesota, where a population of 2000 exists (Sheldon 1992). Sheldon (1992) also reports that small populations can also be found in some areas in Europe.

In the contiguous United States (fig.1) wolves have been found in Wisconsin, Michigan, Montana, and Minnesota, with smaller populations and rare occurrences in Idaho, Washington, Wyoming, North Dakota and South Dakota (U.S. Dept. of the Interior & U.S. Dept. of Fish and Wildlife 1994). Finding accurate statistics of wolf distribution by estimating their population can be difficult. Wolves generally inhabit remote areas and are capable of traveling over long distances (Paradiso & Nowak, 1982). Sheldon (1992) reports that in recent years this problem of locating wolves has been improved through newer technology that uses radiotelemetry which helps to organize data including, "wolf movements, social organization, and habits."

In other parts of the world, the gray wolf is in serious danger of extinction. Few individuals can be found in the Middle East in the countries of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. A much larger population of about 1000 exists in India, but protection is not enforced (Alderton, 1994).

In Europe, the only area with a considerable number of wolves is in the eastern section, in the former USSR Scandinavia's population of wolves may have increased due to wolves crossing the border from the former USSR (Alderton, 1994). Alderton (1994) suggests that the current distribution in Southern Europe is "confined essentially to the areas in the northwest of Spain, and the eastern side of Portugal."

Modern Distribution

image The gray wolf has been pushed to the edge of extinction by humans in almost every habitat it used to call home. "Worldwide, wolves were once distributed everywhere north of about 20 degrees N. latitude which runs through Mexico City and southern India" (Hippomedia Corp., web site). Humans being at the top of most food chains as well as the belief that we as humans are separate from nature has led to the demise in gray wolf populations. "In many countries, the wolf has long been gone. However, there are still some 50,000 wolves in Eurasia, and about 50,000 in Canada, and about 4,000-6,000 in Alaska. Mexico has less than a dozen."(Hippomedia Corp.)

In the United States there was mass extinction in a very short time period. As the settlers moved West, they killed off much of the main food supply of the wolf and became a competitor. With nothing to eat they tried to survive by feeding on the settlers livestock. This was a big mistake. They were then given the bad name that they now have as a loathsome creature. The settlers began the slaughter with massive hunting and poisoning campaigns. "The poison campaign which killed upwards of two million wolves in less than fifty years was already underway in the mid-nineteenth century"(Egan). "Today, about 2,000 wolves exist in Minnesota, fewer than 20 on Lake Superior's Isle Royale, about 60 in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, 40 to 50 in Wisconsin, and about 65 in Montana. Numbers are low but unknown in Idaho and Washington, and an occasional individual is seen in Wyoming, North Dakota, and South Dakota"(U.S.F.& W.S. web site).

Populations fluctuate due to food availability and strife within packs. The gray wolf is listed under the Endangered Species Act as a threatened species in Minnesota, and as an endangered species elsewhere in the lower 48 states. "Endangered" means a species is considered in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range, and "threatened" means a species is considered in danger of becoming endangered. In Alaska, wolf populations number 5,900 to 7,200 and are not considered endangered or threatened.

Biogeographic History


The first ancestor of Canis lupus was Miacis, "a small, civet-like carnivorous mammal, with short legs and long body, which lived some forty million years ago (Eocene-Oligocene transition)" (Fox, 1971).

The first appearance of a species that was not a mixture of bear, fox, etc., and wolf was the species Mesocyon coryphaeus. "The fossil was dated to be 28.7 million years old and found near the Turtle Cove member of John Day Formation, central Oregon" (Wang,1994).

"During the Oligocene period, two North American types emerged from Miacis, one a large tailed Daphaenus, and a smaller slender Cynodictis. From this arose two types in the lower Miocene: Temmocyon, from which emerged the modern hunting dogs of Africa and India: the second type, Cynodismus, in North America, developed into enormous hyena-like animals. An offshoot from Cynodismus in the upper Miocene emerged. This was Tomarctus, from which developed fox and wild dog" (Fox, 1971).

The range of Canis lupus has been affected by ice ages. After the last ice age which occurred some 20,000 years ago, the wolf population generally moved towards the poles. North and South migration occurred.

Plate tectonics has had some effect upon that of Canis lupus. Tectonic activity occurring 20 million years ago near present day New England caused a change in range. The species Cynodesmus, hyena-like, eventually became extinct during this time period, possibly because of the movement of the plate or plates.

Current Status


Gray wolves are listed as endangered in every state except Alaska and Minnesota (in Minnesota they are listed as threatened with a 1993 population of 1700). There is a large population of wolves in Canada. In 1987, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service chose three areas for wolf reintroduction. The Revised Northern Rocky Mountain Wolf Recovery Plan would take place in Yellowstone National Park, central Idaho wilderness, and the Northern Continental Divide (which includes Glacier National Park). This recovery plan takes place under the 1973 Endangered Species Act (Wilkinson, 1993).

The plan is to capture wolves in Canada and release 15 into Yellowstone and 15 into Idaho. Then, as long as there are no more legal setbacks, they will reintroduce 15 more wolves in each area every fall for the next 3-5 years. Hopefully, by the year 2002, they would have 100 wolves in Yellowstone. This reintroduction is not only about reestablishing the species. According to the source, "Returning wolves to Yellowstone and Idaho is, rather, 'a symbolic act, just as exterminating them in the West was a symbolic act', says Rênee Askins, director of the Wolf Fund" (Begley and Glick 53). The authors believe that it is not about "'saving' wolves", as there are 6,000 wolves in Alaska and 55,000 wolves in Canada.

There were several opponents of this plan, such as livestock, hunting, ranching, and Wise Use groups. The main fear of these groups is the loss of livestock to wolves as they leave the park. However, according to a study, wolves as an attraction in Yellowstone could generate $19 million which is much more than the estimated amount of

losses of livestock. Furthermore, Yellowstone visitor were polled and of approximately 35,000 people, 97% voted to reintroduce wolves. Another argument to reintroduce wolves was to balance out the population of other Yellowstone animals such as elk and bison. The gray wolf is the only missing mammal from Yellowstone's post-Pleistocene ecosystem (Wilkinson, 1993).

As the government reintroduces wolves into Yellowstone and Idaho, there is also a re-colonization effort by wild wolves. Gray wolves have been living in Isle Royal National Park in Michigan and in Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota as well. Furthermore, there is a move of wolves from Canada down into Glacier National Park and near North

Cascades National Park in Washington.

There have been successful reintroductions of other species of wolves in the U.S. The red wolf has been successfully reintroduced into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and in Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in Manteo, North Carolina.

Life History

Gray wolves are highly social animals. They form packs of from 2-12 individuals depending on the abundance of prey. The social structure of the pack is a strict hierarchy controlled by an alpha male. Within this pack structure only the alpha male and alpha female are likely to breed, although all members of the pack will take care of the pups. Wolves lead a complex social life. They form groups called packs, which are typically composed of the dominant mated pair (the alpha male and female), their offspring, and an assortment of other adults, often with some genetic relationship to the alpha male and female.

In early summer the dominant female bears a litter of up to ten pups. Dens are located in secluded locations. Life in summer centers around this den site. The whole group assists in the upbringing: helping to feed the mother and young with prey from the hunt, caring for the pups when the mother herself goes hunting, and guarding the area from predators like grizzly bears. By fall the pups are able to roam freely and the group may become more nomadic.

Generally wolf pups will leave the pack when they are about a year old. In packs without younger pups, however, the pups may stay with their pack longer. Although many year old pups may have to live on their own and find all their own food, Mech observed that, "the yearlings sometimes behaved like pups in remaining together in a rendezvous site while the alpha pair hunted for many hours and delivered food to them" (1995). When pups leave the pack, generally at the age of 1, they will adopt a solitary lifestyle for some time. After this solitary period the wolves will often pair up and establish a territory of their own.

The life of the pack is finely tuned to the hunt. When moose or caribou are abundant, wolves live in larger groups to enable pack hunting. A pack uses a distinct territory, which it defends against other wolves. Wolf territories vary greatly in size, from 10 to 20 square miles up to more than 5,000 square miles. The size of a packs territory is largely dependent on the availability of prey. In areas with abundant prey packs tend to be larger and have a smaller territory.

During winter wolves may travel long distances, especially when the main prey is a migratory species such as caribou. In some areas of northeast Asia, wolves have come to prey heavily on reindeer, with the result that predatory pressures have lessened on caribou stocks. Many other foods will be utilized if available: such as moose, mountain sheep, marmots, ground squirrels, hares, mice and even spawning salmon.


Alderton, D. (1994)  Foxes, Wolves, and Wild Dogs of the World. Blandford,
	UK, 107-110.

Begley, Sharon and Glick, Daniel (1995) The Return of the Native Alberta.  
	Newsweek, January 23, 1995, Volume 125, No. 4, 113.

Egan, Tim (1990) The Good Rain. Vintage Books, 132.

Fox, Michael W. (1971) Behavior of Wolves Dogs and Related Canids. 13-20.

Hippomedia Corp.

Klinghammer, Erich (1979) The Behavior and Ecology of Wolves. Garland 
	Publishing, 113.

Mech, David (1995) Summer Movements and Behavior of an Arctic Wolf,
              Canis lupus, Pack Without Pups. The Canadian Field 
Naturalist, 474, 473-475.

Mech, David (1970) The Wolf. University of Minnesota Press, 33.

Nowak, N.M. & Paradiso J.L. (1982) Wolves (Canis lupus and Allies) in Wild
	Mammals of North America. Chapman, J.A. & Feldhamer, G.A., eds. The John
	Hopkin University Press, Baltimore, Maryland, 461 & 471.

Robbins, Jim (1995) With Return of Wolves to West, Predatory Habits Bring 
	Back Fear and Anger. The New York Times, Friday, December 29, 1995, Vol. 
	CXLV, No. 50,290, A-22.

Sheldon, J.W. (1992) Wild Dogs. Academic Press Inc., 39-40.

Wang, Xiaoming (1994)  Journal of Vertebrate Palentology. v.14, n.3, 
	supplement, 51.

US Dept. of the Interior & U.S. Dept. of Fish and Wildlife Service (1994)  
	Endangered Species: Gray wolf/Canis lupus, Biologue Series.

US Fish and Wildlife Service Endangered Species Document

Wilkinson, Todd (1993) Bringing Back the Pack. National Parks, May/June 
	1993, Volume 67, No. 5-6, 25-29.

Bibliography style: Journal of Biogeography

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