• View from Sourdough Mountain Overlook  A view looking down onto Diablo Lake. Photo Credit: NPS/Michael Silverman, 2010.

    North Cascades

    National Park Washington

Wolf Description and Biology

Wolf

What does a wild wolf look like?

A lot like a big dog -- because dogs descended from wolves. But a wolf has longer legs, bigger feet, and a narrower chest than large domestic dogs. While a domestic dog's tail may curl, a wolf's does not. In distinguishing wolf tracks from those of large dogs, size is ineffective.

Is a gray wolf gray?

The "gray" wolf coat may vary in color from pure white to coal black. The usual color is not gray but light tan or cream mixed with brown, black, and white. Much of the black is concentrated on the back, the forehead tends to be brown, and the lower part of the head and body are whitish.

How do you tell a wolf from a coyote or dog?

It isn't easy. Wolves howl, whimper and rarely bark. Their howling is described as haunting by some, mournful by others who have heard them in the wild. The call of adult wolves differs from that of coyotes and dogs. It is a long and clear howl not interrupted by short yaps and barks.

Distinguishing wolves from coyotes and dogs is different especially when lighting is poor, sighting is brief, or the animal is at a great distance. In general, adult wolves are much larger than coyotes. Coyote colors rarely vary while wolf colors vary widely, and solid-colored wolves are common.

It must be remembered that although they resemble their domestic cousins, wolves are not dogs. They're wild and meant to stay that way. Nature dictates that the wolf be an efficient predator in order to survive. While fulfilling this role the wolf occupies an important niche in the ecosystem.

Coyote

  • Height at shoulder: 16-20 inches
  • Weight: 20-30 pounds
  • Color: All shades of gray and tan, even spotted.

Grey Wolf

  • Height at shoulder: 26-34 inches
  • Weight: 70-115 pounds
  • Color: Black, white, all shades of gray and tan, grizzled all over, never spotted.

What happens when wolves and dogs interbreed?

People sometimes breed wolves and dogs creating wolf hybrids that can be mistaken for wolves. However, hybrids can breed with wild wolves, resulting in a wild wolf population with less "wild" genetic structure, and thus, less chance for survival in the wild. Hybrids make undesirable pets. Attacks upon people and livestock by hybrids may lead people to incorrectly expect similar behavior from wild wolves and hamper wolf recovery. Hybrids seldom survive long in the wild.

What do wolves eat?

Wolves eat mostly mammals such as moose, elk, deer, beaver and marmot. They were probably the major predator in the North Cascades for thousands of years until the later 19th century. Wolves often eat the sick, weak, diseased, injured, and the very young or old. Removing these animals supports the vigor of the prey species population.

Are wolves dangerous to humans?
Is it safe to hike or camp in wolf country?

Wolves in the wild are afraid of humans and generally avoid contact with them. There are no documented instances of healthy wolves attacking humans in North America and only one instance of a rabid wolf doing so. Perhaps some of the widespread fear of wolves is the result of encounters with dogs allowed to run wild. Most places where wolves roam, people are not even aware of their presence. I've heard that wolves are very social. Wolves live in family groups called packs made up of two to 12 or more members. Packs are governed by an Alpha pair, usually the only pair to breed. Although an average of six pups are born, few survive the rigors of their first year. Wolves are highly intelligent and communicate with each other by scent marking, vocalizations, and facial and body posturing. Howling helps them keep track of each other, establish territories, assemble the pack, and defend a kill. They may also sometimes howl just for the fun of it.

What is being done to learn more about wolves in the North Cascades?

Wolves are being monitored by personal observations and surveys, which include howling, self-activated cameras, and track scent stations. Attempts to radio collar a wolf in the North Cascades have been unsuccessful so far, limiting knowledge of how many wolves are present and what areas they are using. Land managers need accurate and more complete information to better support wolf conservation.

 

Some More Wolf Facts

  • Wolves have very well developed senses: They can hear rodents moving under heavy snow and other wolves howling from several miles distant. They can smell prey more than a mile away.
  • Wolves run on their toes. This lengthens their legs and makes it possible for them to run faster and turn more quickly.
  • There are probably fewer than 2,500 wolves in the whole United States today, outside of Alaska.
  • Every dog in the world is descended from wolves that were tamed in the Middle East about 12,000 years ago.
  • A wolf's winter coat is very woolly, and can be two and one-half inches thick with individual hairs as long as five inches.

Did You Know?