Gray Wolf

Collared, grayish-tan wolf in open field
Species of Conservation Concern
Scientific Name
Canis lupus
Canidae (dogs) in the order Carnivora

The gray wolf is similar to the coyote but is larger and more robust (coyotes seldom exceed 30 pounds in our state), with a broader nose pad, a larger heel pad on the front foot, somewhat coarser pelage (fur), longer and more slender legs, and larger ears in proportion to the head. The coloration varies.

This species is an occasional visitor to our state. Because of the great variety in the bodies of dogs, coyotes, and wolves, to ensure correct identification, seek expert advice. In the last decade or so, Missouri hunters have occasionally shot federally endangered wolves that have wandered here from other states, having mistaken them for enormous coyotes.

Similar species: In addition to the coyote and domestic dog, noted above, the gray wolf is also very similar to the red wolf (Canis rufus), one of the world’s most endangered canids, which once called southern and eastern Missouri home. The red wolf no longer occurs in our state; in 1950, a small female killed in Taney County became the last red wolf on record in Missouri. Globally, the red wolf was declared extinct in the wild in 1980, but a captive breeding program has resulted in the red wolf being successfully reintroduced into a small area in northeastern North Carolina.

Other Common Names
Timber Wolf

Total length: about 50–60 inches; tail length: about 13–16 inches; weight: 60–120 pounds. Males are larger and heavier.

Where To Find
image of Gray Wolf Timber Wolf Distribution Map

Considered extirpated from Missouri. Individuals occasionally wander into Missouri from other states, particularly Minnesota, Wisconsin, or Michigan.

Fear of attacks on humans and livestock, and its feeding on game animals, led to unremitting efforts to exterminate the gray wolf. Also, the loss of our continent’s great bison herds eliminated a primary food source of midwestern wolves. By 1900 this species was gone from most of the eastern and central United States, and by 1915 its population was greatly reduced in the remaining parts of its range in the western United States, Canada, and Alaska. Today, the gray wolf is understood as an interesting and valuable part of our native wildlife populations. It is protected as an endangered species in much of the United States, including Missouri.

Wolves can hunt in groups and can take live prey ranging from bison, elk, and deer to rabbits and mice. When prey is scarce, they can eat frogs, lizards, large insects, carrion, and garbage. As with many other canids, they supplement their diet with a variety of fruit and vegetable matter.

A federal endangered species in much of the United States south of Interstate 80, including Missouri. Apparently secure globally. Extirpated from Missouri. Now, when a seeming wolf appears in our state, biologists use DNA tests to determine if it’s truly a wolf, where it came from, and how it got here. Until wolves breed again in Missouri on their own, they’re considered extirpated.

Life Cycle

A diverse and wide-ranging species. The biology of gray wolves is complex and interesting. They are generally monogamous and live in packs led by a single pair of “alpha” wolves. The packs can travel quickly and far. The wolves that have appeared in Missouri in recent years apparently are young animals seeking new territories, away from areas populated by other wolves. A wolf that appeared in Missouri in 2001 was wearing a radio collar and an ear tag linking it to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, more than 600 miles away.

Wolves have been hated and feared — and admired and respected — by humans for millennia. They symbolize wilderness, freedom, and loyalty. Missouri author Laura Ingalls Wilder repeatedly wrote about encounters with wolves in her novels based on her frontier childhood. For her, wolves symbolized the breathtaking and beautiful wild landscapes that her parents and other settlers were transforming into cropland.

The gray wolf's reintroduction in the West remains contentious among many.

Our domestic dogs are a subspecies called Canis lupus familiaris and were bred from wolves.

Wolves are top predators, eating a variety of mammals, particularly large ones that smaller predators can’t take.

The absence of top predators leads to an overabundance of animals such as deer.

Wolves’ habit of hunting ill or injured animals strengthens the herds of the species they feed upon.

Signs and Tracks Image
Illustration of a single gray wolf track
Signs and Tracks

Front track:

  • 4¼–5 inches long
  • 4 toes
  • Comparatively more rounded and wider than hind track.

Hind track:

  • 4 inches long
  • 4 toes
  • Comparatively more egg-shaped than front track.

Other notes:

  • Wolves are rare in Missouri, having been extirpated since the early 1900s; occasional individuals wander here from other states.
  • A federally endangered species protected by law.
  • Look for an X shape in the negative space between the pads.
  • Tracks are larger than domestic dog’s.
  • Stride distance is 30 inches (walking).
Media Gallery
Similar Species
About Mammals in Missouri
More than 70 species of wild mammals live in Missouri: opossums; shrews and moles; bats; rabbits; woodchuck, squirrels, beaver, mice, voles, and other rodents; coyote, foxes, bear, raccoon, weasels, otter, mink, skunks, bobcat, and other carnivores; deer and elk; and more. Most of us recognize mammals easily — they have fur, are warm-blooded, nurse their young, and breathe air.
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