Wolves are larger than you might realize.
The wolf is one of the most controversial animals living in North America. Some people love them simply for being the apex carnivores of their world. Others hate them because of how they prey on big game animals like deer, elk and other ungulates.
One thing is for sure, members of the Canis lupus family have captured the imaginations of humans for centuries and will likely continue to do so for the near future. Especially in Canada and the United States where they have made such a comeback.
One thing we realized is that many people have no idea how large these animals get. Let us break it down for you based on the species of wolf.
The Grey Wolf
Also known as the "the gray wolf," this is usually the animal most people think of when they think of wolves. These animals grow to a massive size. Adult wolves stretch anywhere from four to six feet long and can weigh anywhere from 40 to 170 pounds at the largest. Animals over the 100-pound mark are rare, but it is quite possible to see one that size if you're in the right area.
Several years ago, I was exploring Yellowstone National Park in late September when I stopped at a pull-off in Hayden Valley where another local photographer familiar with the area was sitting vigilantly. He informed me there was a large alpha female gray wolf in the brush a few hundred yards away.
After waiting a few minutes, she stepped out. I had seen wild wolves in the park several times prior to this. However, this was the biggest wolf I had ever encountered in the wild. She was bigger than the largest German shepherd dogs I've ever seen. For comparison, that domestic dog species usually weighs between 60 and 80 pounds. I estimate the wolf I saw weighed at least 100 pounds and was nothing but pure muscle.
When you see an animal that size in person, it's easy to understand why so many people harbor such a fear of these animals. She was quite intimidating all on her own without any of her other pack members present. When wolf packs have several animals of this size all ganging up on an elk or bison, it's easy to see why they are such fearsome predators. Even from 200 yards out, I could quite clearly see her large canine teeth as she went about her day, oblivious to the crowds of onlookers.
This species of wolf is found both here in North America and Eurasia. It is worth noting that despite this animal's intimidating size, and portrayal in movies like "The Grey" starring Liam Neeson, recorded attacks on humans are quite rare. In the case of that wolf I saw in Yellowstone? There has never been a recorded attack on a human there. So, you're safe to go camping without worry about these animals hunting you.
The name "timber wolf" is something of a misnomer because it's a blanket term that refers to at least three different sub species of the extensive canidae family. This includes the eastern wolf, Northern Rocky Mountain wolf and the Northwestern wolf.
We'll start with the Eastern wolf, aka "canis lupus lycaon," which is the one that can be found in my part of the country. You'll sometimes hear this one called the "Eastern timber wolf" too. It is usually found in the Great Lakes regions of Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin. These wolves are also found in Ontario. Despite living in Michigan my whole life, I have never seen one while exploring the state's rugged and vast Upper Peninsula because the wolf population is not as high as some residents would like you to believe. Your odds of coming face-to-face with one are probably low. In any case, these animals are usually much smaller than the grey wolves at around 65 pounds. They stand about 30-32 inches high at the shoulder. Basically, they're about the same size as a large golden retriever.
The Northern Rocky Mountain wolf (canis lups irremotus) is about the same height as the Eastern wolf on average, but it grows much larger. Specimens between 70-150 pounds are not unheard of. As the name suggests, you're going to find this species most often in regions of the Rocky Mountains, especially Idaho, Wyoming and Montana.
The last of the timber wolf subspecies is the Northewestern wolf or "Canis lupus occidentalis." It's worth noting all these species have a similar appearance, but there are minor differences, usually in coloration and body structure. Further confusing the matter, the Northwestern wolf is also called the "Alaskan timber wolf," "Canadian timber wolf," and sometimes the "Mackenzie Valley wolf." These are mostly regional variations on the name. It's found mostly in Canada, especially around British Columbia.
Northwestern wolves can also grow to over 100 pounds in weight and can stretch as much as five to six feet long. I'm about six feet tall. That means a larger specimen on its hind legs could look me straight in the eyes. That's intimidating to think about. It's little wonder these animals have frightened humans so much over the centuries.
The Red Wolf
This species (Canis lupus rufus) is protected under the Endangered Species Act and like the name suggests, often has a reddish hue to its coloration. It has a limited range mostly in the Southeastern United States. They can be found across parts of Pennsylvania, the Carolinas and as far south as Texas. There have been concentrated efforts to try to restore this animal to its home ranges, but they are still a rare sight anywhere in the wild.
This species is usually slightly smaller than other wolf species. They are around four feet long and are usually around 40-80 pounds. At the shoulder, they only stand about 25 inches, far less than the other animals on this list. Keep in mind we said ONLY 25 inches. While that's small for a wolf, keep in mind this animal is about the size of a bloodhound! Even the smaller wolves are much larger than most people realize.
As another grey wolf subspecies, (Canis lups arctos). This animal grows to a massive size. The largest specimens can reach upwards of 160 pounds and five to six feet in length in some cases. The arctic wolf hunts in packs and feeds on caribou and muskoxen mostly. Although scientists have noted they also hunt arctic hares extensively to round out their diet in the harsh areas they live.
As the name suggests, this animal lives at extreme Northern climates of the arctic circle in Canada and parts of Greenland. The remote area it lives has been a benefit to survival, they haven't been as extensively hunted as other wolf species. The downside is that for hunters, workers and explorers in the area, they don't have as much of a natural fear of humans. Fortunately, attacks are rare.
This wolf species native to Europe and Russia and is worth mentioning in a discussion of wolf size because these animals are huge and ferocious. The Eurasian wolf (Canis lupus lupus) is a grey wolf subspecies that can reach anywhere from 70-174 pounds. This is another animal that only stands around 30 inches high at the shoulder, but the five to six-foot length would be imposing to anyone who finds themselves in a stare down with one. Fortunately, this species eats mostly deer, moose and even caribou in some more remote regions of Russia.
The Eurasian wolf is a resilient one. Europeans hunted them heavily. They succeeded in exterminating them from most areas before the mid-1800s. The old Soviet Union tried to do the same, but numbers have recovered somewhat, probably thanks to Russia's vast wilderness. It gave the animals more sanctuary and a place to raise young wolf pups away from people. This species has a more notorious reputation than the wolves of North America because it was responsible for thousands of deaths from medieval times to the present. It may be arguable that most of the bad reputations for wolves comes from this species' attacks on humans.
Most wolves are huge
Often people living in the city are totally unaware just how large wildlife can grow until they see one in person at a zoo or a National Park. Wolves are no exception. Most average-sized wolves are going to fall in that 70-80 pound range which makes them comparable to the largest domesticated dogs out there. The largest wolves will make some dogs look like puppies by comparison.
Keep in mind that domesticated dogs smaller than that have mauled and even killed humans before. Remember, these are apex predators perfectly adapted to their wilderness environment. Their size, strength and speed give all wolves quite an advantage. It's why we recommend giving any wolf you encounter in the wild a wide berth, both for your safety and the animal's safety too.
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