The wolf has several common names, including “eastern timber wolf”, “grey wolf and “black wolf”. Its scientific name, Canis lupis, is made up of the Latin words for “dog” and “wolf”.
The wolf originally inhabited western Europe from Spain to Ireland, and central and northern Asia as far east as Japan. In North America, its original range extended from Mexico to the high arctic. Now, the wolf is rare in the United States except in northern Minnesota, northern Michigan and Alaska. Before 1950, the wolf’s Ontario range extended as far south as the Bruce Peninsula. Since that time, sightings this far south have been rare, and the bulk of the population does not venture beyond the southerly limit of exposed Precambrian rock. The southern boundary of the range corresponds to an imaginary line drawn between the middle of Lake Simcoe and the northern part of Lanark County. Wolves are found throughout the rest of Ontario wherever there are forests.
The wolf is about the size of a large German shepherd, but its legs are lankier and its chest is narrower. It has a larger, heavier frame, a broader forehead and a blunter face than the coyote’s. Males weigh from 27 to 36 kg (60 to 79 lbs), and northern wolves may be even heavier. Females are lighter by 5 to 7 kg (11 to 15 lbs) and have smaller frames. The average wolf stands between 61 and 76 cm (24 and 30 in) at the shoulder, and measures between 121.9 and 190.5 cm (48 and 75 in) from nose to tail. The wolf’s front feet are longer than its hind feet, but both sets are large and provide mobility on snowy terrain. The footprints are oval in shape, rather than circular like those of a dog. The tail is generally carried straight back when the animal walks or runs and the ears are rounded. These features help to distinguish the wolf from the coyote, which generally carries its tail down and has pointed ears. The wolf’s distinctly slanted eyes are gold, and are surrounded by pale fur. Fur colouration varies considerably among individuals. Pelts range from the white that is especially common in the arctic to coal black. In the Algonquin Region, the wolf usually sports a grizzled grey coat. The particularly dense fur around the neck is tipped in grey or black. This colouration continues down the back to the tip of the tail. The shorter under fur ranges from grey to a pale buff colour. The sides of the muzzle, the fur beneath the eyes, the chin and the prominent cheek ruff are all pale. The legs and belly are buff coloured, and the large, bushy tail is tawny on the underside and tipped with black. The wolf sheds in late spring. Its summer coat is shorter and lighter in colour.
The female wolf is sexually mature at two years of age, and the male, at three years. Each wolf pack has only one breeding pair, and this couple dominates the other members. Mates remain together throughout their lives. Mating occurs between late February and mid-March, and the young arrive in early May after a gestation period of 63 days. The average Ontario litter contains five pups. The helpless new-borns are blind and have a woolly coat of greyish-brown or sooty grey. Their eyes open within the first 10 to 12 days, and the adult pelt pattern begins to emerge by the end of the first month. The pups may leave the den at one month of age, but their movements are restricted until they are at least two months. Weaned at six weeks to two months, they begin to eat regurgitated meat provided by their attentive parents. The milk teeth, lost at this time, are gradually replaced by permanent teeth during the first year of life. The family leaves the whelping den about mid-July, moving to a summer living area or rendezvous site often located near a bog or swamp. As the young become independent, they may either remain with the pack or leave to search for new territory. In the wild, wolves usually live only five or six years.
The wolf prefers forested habitat with high vantage points and clearings, but it can also live on the tundra in hilly, craggy places or in areas offering a mixture of forest and open countryside. It is usually found in close proximity to water far from human habitation. Den sites include hollow logs, caves, and underneath tangled tree roots. The dens are unlined, have two entrances, and face towards the south.
Food and Feeding Behaviour
Wolves are opportunistic eaters. While they prefer beaver, caribou, elk, moose and deer, they will also eat rabbits, hares, muskrat, raccoon, mice and otter. They usually kill domestic livestock when other foods are in short supply. In the summer, vegetation and fruit are added to the diet. The animals are heavy eaters, consuming up to one-fifth of their own body weight at one time. When food is abundant, the kill is often left uncovered. In leaner times, it is buried in snow, dirt or under debris. Although wolves will return to finish off a carcass, they are less fond of carrion than are coyotes. During the winter, larger game is hunted. In summer, prey usually consists of smaller mammals like beaver. Hunting success depends upon the co-operation of the pack rather than upon speed. The pack members pursue the prey in single file, and then spread out for the kill. They may also split up and chase the prey towards other pack members lying in wait. Attacks to the nose, throat or flanks slow the prey for the kill, and are especially effective on larger animals such as moose. Sometimes, the pack waits near the injured prey until it is sufficiently weakened for the fatal attack to be made safely.
Wolves are shy, elusive animals that tend to be nocturnal. However, within the pack, they are very social and maintain a hierarchy or class system. The average pack consists of 6 to 10 members, although in rare cases packs may comprise up to 30 individuals. Vocal communication usually takes the form of prolonged, loud, throaty howls, and is most intense during the breeding season. To call her pups, the female makes high, soft, plaintive sounds. Wolves are known for endurance rather than speed. Their characteristic lope has been clocked at about 32 km/h (20 mph). They can run at speeds of 45 km/h (28 mph) over short distances. The home range is generally from 39 to 78 square km (15 to 30 square mi) in summer and between 130 and 233 square km (50 and 90 square mi) in winter. The range size varies according to the amount of prey available. Regular runways within the range are used for hunting. These may consist of game trails, logging roads, portages, and the shores of rivers and lakes. The urine scent posts evident along these runways are used to signal possession of the territory by the pack and to mark the range boundaries.
Wolf packs tend to be self-limiting and, once a certain density is attained within a specific area, increases no longer occur. Social factors are important in controlling numbers when food supplies are abundant. When food is scarce, packs are reduced by a high juvenile mortality rate of from 50 to 60 percent.
A bounty on wolves existed in Ontario from 1793 to 1972, when the species was given full furbearer status. Since that time, there has been no need for a closed season on wolf. Wolf management techniques include the monitoring of populations and packs around deer-yarding areas, and the control of nuisance animals. A pack of wolves can eliminate the deer population in a small, winter yarding area. In such cases, the predators are removed either by trappers or by Ministry staff members. Wolves that prey on livestock are removed either by licensed trappers or by the complainant, who acts on the directions of the Ministry.