Wolf Biology and Identification

Wolf Biology and Habitat

Wolves are the largest member of the Canid family (wild dogs), which also includes coyotes, and red and gray foxes.

As adults, wolves average 30 inches in height at the shoulder and 65 pounds. Their feet are generally 3 1/2 inches wide and 4 1/2 inches long, and provide an easy way of differentiating wolves from coyotes, whose feet are only 1 1/2 inches wide and 2 1/2 inches long.

In Michigan, wolves eat deer, beaver, snowshoe hare, rodents and other small mammals, and may also eat woodchuck, muskrat, coyote, raccoon, insects, nuts, berries and grasses. They are the only Canid species in Michigan that hunts in a social unit (the pack). While wolves can go for a week without eating, when they do eat, their meal may include 20 pounds of meat at a time.

Although wolves do not need "wilderness" (i.e. non-managed, roadless areas), they do need large areas of contiguous forest in which to range. They also need stable populations of their preferred prey. Wolf habitat is enhanced by timber cutting, wildlife habitat management and other practices that create more diverse and productive forests. On average, a pack of wolves will roam an area of approximately 45 square miles.

Wolves have a very strict dominance/sub-ordinate social structure that is constantly being maintained and reinforced. A typical pack consists of one alpha male, one alpha female, the young of the year, and a few others that may or may not be related to the alpha pair. New packs are often formed by lone wolves who have broken from a pack, but have been able to find a mate and new territory in which to hunt. In Michigan, the average pack size is expected to be around five members, but may be as small as two members. Pack size is dependent on the amount of prey available.

Breeding (between the alpha male and female only) generally occurs in February, with six to ten (average seven) pups born in April in a den prepared by the alpha female. While the pups are still nursing, the alpha female remains with them and is fed by the rest of the pack. After the pups are weaned, the alpha female will again join the pack in hunting and all members of the pack aid in providing the pups with nourishment through regurgitation of meat. When the pups are old enough, they are moved out of the den and often to a nursery area, called a "rendezvous site", where they remain while the adult members of the pack go out to hunt. This area is often located in rank vegetation near water, such as a beaver flooding that has since become a wild grass meadow. Although they are still tended by the adults, who bring them meat, this is where the young learn hunting skills by practicing with shrews, mice and other small animals.

Communication occurs between wolves in many ways, such as scent marking, but howling may be the most fascinating. Wolves are believed to howl in order to reconvene the family, announce a kill and for the simple joy of communication.

Michigan History and Population Recovery


Wolves are native to Michigan and were once present in all 83 counties. Persecution and active predator control programs throughout the 20th century virtually eliminated wolves from Michigan: by 1840, they could no longer be found in the southern portion of the Lower Peninsula; by 1935 they had completely disappeared from the Lower Peninsula; and by 1960, when the state-paid bounty on wolves was repealed, they had nearly vanished from the Upper Peninsula. The last known pups born during this era were documented in 1954-1956, in the area now known as Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.

The species remained unprotected in Michigan until the state Legislature granted full legal protection in 1965. The federal government listed the gray wolf as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973, when the Michigan wolf population was estimated at only six animals in the UP, along with an isolated population on Isle Royale.

In the 1970s, biologists documented an increasing number of wolf reports and the occasional vehicle strike in the Upper Peninsula. An attempt at translocating four wolves from Minnesota to the Upper Peninsula was made in 1974, but all four animals were killed by humans within eight months, before any successful reproduction could occur. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) subsequently decided to let wolf recovery happen naturally without human intervention.

Natural emigration of wolves from Minnesota, Ontario and Wisconsin to the Upper Peninsula was first documented in the 1980s, when a pair of wolves was discovered in the central UP. The pair had pups in 1990, and by 1992, when the population numbered an estimated 21 animals, it was clear wolves were starting to successfully rebound in the state.

The comeback of the wolf in Michigan is a remarkable wildlife success story. State and federal protection of wolves enabled successful recovery of the species throughout the western Great Lakes Region. Wolves also rebounded in the Upper Peninsula due to the availability of prey and timber harvesting practices that created prime deer habitat.

A large part of the recovery success story is also attributed to support from the public. Survey results from the mid-1990s, when wolves first began to rebound in the Upper Peninsula, indicated that 64 percent of Upper Peninsula respondents and 57 percent of Lower Peninsula respondents supported wolf recovery. Continued social acceptance of a self-sustaining wolf population is critical to maintaining the population's "recovered" status and retaining state management authority.

Population Recovery

Estimated at only 20 animals in 1992, the Upper Peninsula wolf population has grown to over 600 animals recently.

Federal delisting criteria required a combined Michigan/Wisconsin population of 100 wolves for five consecutive years for delisting to occur. The Michigan/Wisconsin combined population has exceeded 100 wolves every year since 1994, and currently numbers more than 1,000 wolves. The Michigan Wolf Recovery and Management Plan (1997) defined a viable population as 200 animals for five consecutive years to allow removal from the state endangered species list. The Michigan wolf population has exceeded 200 animals for more than a decade.

In light of this significant recovery of the wolf population, the state Legislature removed wolves from the state list of endangered species in April 2009, and reclassified wolves as a protected, nongame species. In January 2012, the USFWS removed wolves in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota from the federal endangered species list and returned management authority to the state level. But in December of 2014, a federal court order returned wolves to the Federal Endangered Species list. An appeal of this decision is ongoing.

Wolf Management:

Commitment to Sound Management

Beginning in the early 1990s, the state of Michigan established a firm commitment to the protection and management of wolves. An annual "Michigan Wolf Awareness Week" observed during the month of October, was established in 1992. Additionally, DNR Director Roland Harmes appointed a 10-member Michigan Gray Wolf Recovery Team in July 1992, which he charged with the task of developing a wolf recovery plan for Michigan. The "Michigan Gray Wolf Recovery and Management Plan" was completed and signed by the Director on December 15, 1997.

In 2005, a diverse group of stakeholders known as the Wolf Management Roundtable convened to devise a new management plan to replace the old plan adopted in 1997, when the state was still largely in a protect-and-allow-to-expand mode. The new plan was to focus more on wolf management that would consider the coexistence of humans with a viable and recovered wolf population.

The Michigan Wolf Management Plan, approved in 2008 and updated in 2015, outlines suggested management, research and public outreach techniques used to effectively manage a recovered wolf population. The plan directs the state to create a wolf management advisory group to periodically discuss wolf management and conservation in Michigan once the plan is implemented. The Michigan Wolf Management Advisory Council will meet regularly to review the Wolf Management Plan and suggest any necessary modifications to the Department.

Gray wolf standing in the woodsRecovery from endangered status is not the end of the story for wolves, but only a new beginning for management. Michigan's Wolf Management Plan is highly regarded and will allow the state to manage wolves in a socially and scientifically acceptable way.

As a result of the U.S District Court in Washington DC, issuing an opinion immediately placing wolves in Michigan back on the federal endangered species list, the immediate impacts of this ruling are 1) Wolves may be killed only in the immediate defense of human life 2) two state laws allowing livestock or dog owners to kill wolves in the act of depredation are suspended (PA 290 and PA 218, both from 2008). 3) Lethal control permits previously issued to livestock farmers are no longer valid; permit holders have been contacted regarding this change 4) The DNR no longer has the authority to use lethal control methods to manage problem wolves.

Other non-lethal methods (flagging, fencing, flashing lights, guard animals) may still be used and are encouraged to prevent or minimize wolf depredation. Citizens experiencing issues with depredation or bold/nuisance wolves should contact their local DNR wildlife biologist or call DNR wolf program coordinator Cody Norton at 906-452-6227 ext. 230.

The Department will continue to investigate and pursue vigorous prosecution of any wolf poaching cases. Illegally killing a wolf is punishable by up to 90 days in jail, a $1,000 fine, or both, and the cost of prosecution. Suspected poaching violations may be reported 24 hours a day, seven days a week to the DNR's Report All Poaching hotline at 800-292-7800.

Michigan Wolf Management Advisory Council

The 2008 Michigan Wolf Management Plan (Wolf Plan) provides strategic guidance for wolf management in Michigan. It was developed to help 1) maintain a viable Michigan wolf population above a level that would warrant its classification as threatened or endangered; 2) facilitate wolf-­related benefits; 3) minimize wolf-­related conflicts; and 4) conduct science-­based wolf management with socially acceptable methods. The Wolf Plan includes directions for establishing regular communications among agencies, tribes, the general public, and other stakeholder groups. These communications will allow interested parties to monitor progress made toward full implementation of the Wolf Plan and provide opportunities for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) to receive input on specific management issues.

To facilitate these benefits, the Wolf Management Advisory Council was created. Members of the Wolf Management Advisory Council are representatives from various agencies, tribes, and stakeholder groups that represent the broad array of values and interests concerning wolves and wolf management in Michigan. The Wolf Management Advisory Council convenes at a minimum on an annual basis to discuss wolf management goals, educational opportunities, conflict resolutions, and other topics as needed.

June 28, 2012 WMAC Meeting Report
December 5, 2012 WMAC Meeting Report
February 19, 2013 WMAC Meeting Minutes
April 24, 2013 WMAC Meeting Minutes

Evaluation of the Public Harvest of Wolves in Michigan

In March of 2013, The DNR held a series of 4 public meetings across the state on the possible public harvest of wolves to help resolve conflict issues. The meetings were structured to provide a general background on the issue and to answer questions from the public to help clarify what is being considered and how the DNR is evaluating the topic. Also, during the meeting attendees were asked to complete a survey conducted by Michigan State University which is designed to gather more input from the public.

On Friday, Dec. 19, 2014 the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. issued an opinion immediately placing wolves in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin back on the federal endangered species list. The court order vacated the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's January 2012 decision to delist wolves in the western Great Lakes states. As a result of this ruling, the status of wolves in Michigan has reverted to "federally endangered," the same status they had prior to the Jan. 2012 delisting.

Additional DNR Resources


Resources and Information for Living With Wolves


Non-DNR Wolf Resources

Back to DNR Wolves page