Wolves are fascinating creatures that have captivated humans for as long as human history. Humans were so fascinated by these animals that eventually, we domesticated them as dogs. Humans and wolves have coexisted for millennia. However, most modern humans know little about these magnificent animals that feature in our folklore and stories. Let’s dive in and learn more about some of the wolf subspecies that live in the United States. We will explore their physical characteristics, diets, and current populations to better understand these incredible animals that live among us.
How Many Wolf Species Are There?
The gray wolf, also known by its scientific name Canis lupus, is the only wolf species in the world. However, within the species, there are more than 30 subspecies. Six of these wolf subspecies, of various sizes and habitats, live in different regions of North America.
Depending on the subspecies, the color of these wolves can range from solid white to solid black and many shades in between. There are many variations in size that correlate to the latitude of their home regions. For example, northern wolves are typically larger than southern wolves due to their need for body mass and heat during the cold winters.
1. Red Wolf (Canis lupus rufus)
The red wolf is the smallest extant wolf in the United States today. Like all other wolves, the red wolf is a subspecies of the gray wolf (Canis lupus). Unfortunately, this subspecies is also one of the most endangered wolves in the world. Red wolves came to be due to the interbreeding of coyotes and gray wolves. Coyotes are much smaller than gray wolves. Therefore, red wolves are in between the two parent animals in terms of size.
The size and shape of the red wolf are similar to that of a greyhound due to its lean limbs. The average adult red wolf is between 4.5 to 5.25 feet or 137 to 160 centimeters long and weighs between 50 to 85 pounds or 23 to 38 kilograms. Due to their middling size, they typically go for smaller prey such as rabbits, white-tailed deer, and rodents.
The historical range of the red wolf makes up much of the southeastern United States. Today, the last wild population can be found in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina. Currently, there are only 15 red wolves in the wild and around 200 in captive breeding facilities. Because of their declining population, red wolves are federally protected as a critically endangered species.
2. Mexican Gray Wolf (Canis lupus baileyi)
The Mexican gray wolf, otherwise known as “Lobo,” is the smallest subspecies of gray wolf other than the crossbred red wolf. The average length of an adult Mexican gray wolf is between 4 to 5 feet or 122 to 152 cm. Their weight averages between 60 to 82 pounds or 27 to 37 kg.
Mexican gray wolves are gray, black, or even reddish in color and can be distinguished by a dark pelt running along their backs. These wolves also feature narrow skulls and rostrums. Their typical prey includes deer, rabbits, and small mammals.
The smaller size of this subspecies can be accounted for due to the warm climate within its range. Mexican wolves roam in the southern United States, where the temperature is warmer than the northern range of other gray wolves.
The current range of the Mexican gray wolf is in central Mexico, western Texas, southern New Mexico, and central Arizona. Their range once extended into parts of Utah, Nebraska, and California.
Unfortunately, all Mexican wolves in the wild were poisoned and trapped from 1915 to 1973. And the last few survivors were captured and bred in captivity. In 1998, they were reintroduced to the United States from these five survivors. However, despite the relatively successful reintroduction, the Mexican gray wolf is still a critically endangered wolf subspecies, with only an estimated 240 individuals surviving in the wild.
3. Eastern Wolf (Canis lupus lycaon)
The eastern wolf is a subspecies of the gray wolf that lives in southeastern Canada and the Great Lakes region of the United States (Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the upper peninsula of Michigan). Compared to other gray wolf subspecies in the United States, the eastern wolf is medium-sized. They tend to be black in color with a slight red tent behind the ear. The current population is less than 500 individuals, so it is considered a threatened subspecies and is protected by the Endangered Species Act.
The average eastern wolf weighs between 60 to 66 pounds or 24 to 30 kg. They typically range from 3 to 5.5 ft or 91 to 160 cm in length (rostrum to tail). Their height, or the measurement from the top of their head to the bottom of their front paw, ranges from 2 to 2.6 ft or 66 to 81 cm. Similar to other subspecies of gray wolves, the eastern wolf’s most common prey includes rodents, deer, and larger ungulates (or large hoofed mammals) such as elk.
4. Northern Rocky Mountain Gray Wolf (Canis lupus irremotus)
The Northern Rocky Mountain wolf is a mid-sized wolf that inhabits much of the western United States. Currently, packs of Northern Rocky Mountain wolves roam Idaho, western Montana, western Wyoming, eastern Washington, eastern Oregon, northern Utah, and northern Colorado. Their historic range was throughout all of North America before European colonizers eradicated the species throughout most of its range. This subspecies was listed as critically endangered in 1978, but the title was removed in the year 2000 due to the Northern Rocky Mountain Wolf Recovery Plan.
There are currently 1,650 individual NRM wolves in the contiguous United States. However, in Canada and Alaska, there are an estimated 65,000 NRM wolves.
The Northern Rocky Mountain wolf is light gray in color and varies from other subspecies of gray wolf due to their flat and narrow frontal bone. The average Northern Rocky Mountain gray wolf is between 26 to 32 in or 66 to 81 cm in length (rostrum to tail) and weighs between 70 to 150 lbs or 32 to 68 kg. They typically stand at about 2.5 ft (76 cm) tall, making them about half a foot shorter than the northwestern gray wolf.
Elk, bison, mule deer, and even beavers are typical prey for the northern rocky mountain wolf.
5. Arctic Wolf (Canis lupus arctos)
Another name for the arctic wolf is “white wolf.” It is the northernmost subspecies of the gray wolf in North America. The arctic wolf range includes the arctic tundra of northern Canada and the coastal tundra regions of Alaska. These northern wolves have a distinct white coloring due to their arctic habitat. This pure white coat is an adaptation to help these wolves to camouflage and hunt in their snowy and icy habitat. However, with that said, some individuals may have varying colors, including gray, brown, or sometimes even black.
The arctic wolf’s prey includes small arctic animals. The average arctic wolf has a length of 3 to 6 ft or 90 to 180 cm and an average height of between 2 to 2.5 ft or 63 to 79 cm. The arctic wolf typically weighs between 70 to 175 pounds or 32 to 79 kg. Thus, the arctic wolf is the second largest wolf subspecies in the United States.
Due to its remote arctic habitat, there are few threats of habitat destruction or hunting. That is why the arctic wolf is the only gray wolf subspecies with a stable population. The current population of arctic wolves in North America is estimated to be around 200,000.
6. Northwestern Wolf (Canis lupus occidentalis)
The northwestern gray wolf, also known as the “Canadian timber wolf,” “Alaskan timber wolf,” and “Mackenzie valley wolf,” is the largest wolf subspecies in the United States. The average male northwestern wolf weighs around 137 pounds or 62 kilograms, and the average female weighs 101 pounds or 45.8 kilograms. The average height of these wolves averages around 35 inches or 89 centimeters, and the average length is about 6 feet or 183 cm. This means the average length of the northwestern wolf is 3 inches longer than the average height of human males! Their pelt can vary in color from white to black and shades of gray and brown in between.
The northwestern gray wolves range is throughout Alaska, western Canada, and the northwestern United States. Their prey of choice is typically large ungulates such as bison and elk.
The conservation status of these wolves varies depending on the state or region. In their California range, these wolves are protected under the California Endangered Species Act (2014). In Oregon, they are protected Under the Endangered Species Act west of highways 395, 78, and 95.
Throughout Washington, they are considered an endangered species only in the western 3/4ths of the state, west of Highways 97, state route 17, and U.S. 395. All the wolves east of this point are under the management of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. On the other hand, in Idaho, there is a state-mandated hunting season that is year-round and has no limits on the sex, age, or size of the wolf. Wolves roaming on tribal lands in the United States are managed by those respective tribal entities.
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