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About Gray Wolves

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Wolf Biology


Despite their name, gray wolves may be white, tawny gray or black, or any combination of those colors. Approximately half of any gray wolf population actually is gray. Adult male gray wolves typically weigh between 90 and 110 pounds, and may exceed 5-1/2 feet in length from nose to tail tip. Adult females typically weigh between 80 and 90 pounds and can be 5-feet long. Pups are born with black spots on the upper outside of their tails, which may fade with age. Young wolves may resemble coyotes or some larger domestic dogs. However, wolves can be distinguished from most coyotes and dogs by their longer legs, larger feet, wider head and snout, shorter ears, narrow body, and straight tail. (comparison of wolf and coyote)


Female wolves begin to bear young when they are about 2 years old. Breeding usually occurs only between the dominant male and female in a pack, with the breeding season peaking in mid- to late- February. Pregnancies last for two months and usually result in a litter of three to five young, called pups. All the adults in a pack share in the raising of pups. Wolf packs generally range in size from 3 to 19 wolves.

From late April until September pack activity is centered near the den or at one or more rendezvous sites as the adults wolves hunt and return with food for the pups. Rendezvous sites typically are located in meadows or forest openings near the den, but can be several miles away. Adults carry small pups between the rendezvous sites, where the pups stay until they are able to travel and hunt with the pack, which usually occurs by September.


Wolves are habitat generalists and will establish territories anywhere there is a sufficient food source. When setting out to establish new territories, young male wolves disperse an average of 50 to 60 miles from their source pack, and females disperse an average of 40 miles. However, dispersals of more than 500 miles have been reported.


Pack boundaries and territory sizes vary from year to year depending on changes in prey availability, distribution, conflict with nearby wolf packs, or the establishment of a new neighboring pack. Researchers have reported wolf territories ranging in size from 25 square miles to more than 1000 square miles.


Wolves are opportunistic carnivores whose primary prey are deer, elk and moose. When these prey are not available, wolves will eat smaller animals such as rabbits, beavers, grouse, ravens, skunks, coyotes, porcupines, eagles and fish. Wolves also may kill and feed upon domestic livestock such as cattle, sheep, llamas, and goats. When necessary, wolves also will eat insects, nuts and berries.


wolf track
wolf scat
Wolf Scat (above)
dog scat
Dog Scat (above)
cougar sign
Cougar Scat (above)

Identification of Gray Wolf Sign

Wolf tracks

Apparent sightings of wolf tracks often are a case of mistaken identity. Dog, coyote, and cougar paw prints can be mistaken for wolf tracks. Adult wolf prints are larger than dog and coyote prints. An average-sized wolf makes a track between 3 ½ to 4 ½ inches long (without claws) and 3 to 4 ½ inches wide.


Wolf scat appearance varies widely, depending on diet. Wolf scat is often cord-like and may contain ungulate hair and bone fragments. Scats may appear runny if deposited immediately after eating bloody meat. Wolf scat diameter ranges from 0.5 to 1.5 inches, but is usually greater than an inch. Wolf scat generally tapers to a point at one end.

Coyote scat is usually less than one inch in diameter and has a smoother, shinier appearance than wolf scat. Coyote scat may also taper at one end and may contain ungulate hair. However, coyote scats usually contain rodent or rabbit hair and much smaller bone fragments.

Both wolves and coyotes leave scat in prominent places along trails and roads to mark territories and leave scent behind. It is a form of communication with other wolves and coyotes. They will sometimes scrape the ground after urinating or defecating.

Domestic dog scat is often aggregated and lacks a tapered end. It has a consistent appearance and consistency due to the uniformity of domestic dog foods. It is also generally found in places where people would bring their dogs.

Cougar scat is less often found because of the animal’s secretive nature and tendency to bury scat (look for dirt mounds like a house cat makes, but much larger). It generally has a segmented appearance with non-tapered ends.

Thanks to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks and Jim Halfpenny for scat images and information.

Wolf howling

Wolves are highly social animals and howling is a common behavior that helps packs communicate and stay together. Wolf howls can be heard from as far as five miles away.

The howls of wolves tend to be long and drawn-out as compared with the shorter, yapping sounds made by coyotes. Wolf vocalizations can also include growls and barks.

Howls are not necessarily a sign of aggression; they can simply indicate that a den is nearby. However, if you hear a wolf howling nearby, the best thing to do is to leave the area.


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