What is a "Canadian" Wolf?

With the arise of Gray Wolves being reintroduced to Colorado and the first one being spotted in California in a hundred years, I’m seeing a lot of vocal comments pertaining to “Canadian” or “Mackenzie” Wolf. They are supposedly “bigger, stronger, more aggressive” than the smaller US wolves and supposedly kill for sport, and such reintroductions will decimate the already declining deer and elk populations.

I’m hardly an expert on the topic, all I tell you is, I practically grew up on wolves in Montana and we never had a problem with them. Now I live on the outskirts of a pack’s territory in Oregon and to this day, I still haven’t seen them let alone had any problems with them going after my livestock. But I still hear comments from locals, “they’re Canadian wolves, they’re not suppose to be here and they’re calling off the ‘native’ wolves.” What exactly does that mean?

I looked up the systematics of wolves and if we use Nowak (2003), which it seems iNat agrees with. If that’s the case, it seems to my eyes that size differences occur west-east instead of north-south and that to an extent the wolves that use to occur in Montana/Idaho is the historic subspecies in the first place so there shouldn’t be any size differences. I suppose confliction occurs when you decide which subspecies should be reintroduce into Colorado, the Northern Timber or Plains Wolf, but I’m not sure if it really matters. So all of my information is based off of reading two scientific papers and that really doesn’t designate me as an expert so thoughts, opinions, etc to help me understand the situation would be great.

As a final word on the subject, I did read an opinion article posted by an Idaho Fish & Wildlife biologist after someone asked why Canadian wolves were introduced and they “wiped” out the native wolves. His response was there was no significantly size difference in wolf capturing after the introductions suggesting that the wolves that transported to Idaho were not under the effect of Bergmann’s Rule, which is the idea widespread species get larger the further north you go. He also stated that what Idahoans called the “native” wolves were Plains Wolves that use to roam in the desert regions of southern Idaho rather than the forested mountains. Is that a decent assumption or since it’s all historic anyway, it’s of minimal importance?


This one was not the first in California in a 100 years. A pack has lived in the Lassen area for a couple of years now. I really doubt wolves kill for sport.


Why do you think there are nine times as many Americans as Canadians?

Our weak and frail get picked off by them.


It may not be a productive use of time to wonder too much about it. Here in CA, there are a number of conspiracy theories about these wolves, including but certainly not limited to, 1) they are not ‘true’ gray wolves but are hybrids between wolves and dogs, 2) that they are not ‘true’ gray wolves since they are from the north/not from here/do not reflect the genetics of wolves that historically inhabited CA, 3) that they were secretly brought in by the state or by others.

Thru genetic analysis that State biologists have done, the original alpha male of the Lassen Pack was a male puppy from the Rogue Pack of OR, and was fathered by the somewhat famous OR-7, a radio-collared wolf from OR that traveled widely in CA in the winter of 2011, and has his own wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/OR-7

Simply, there are people who use information to inform their belief system, and those who do not.


I thought that the plains wolf was considered extinct?

I’m not sure which subspecies was native to most of Colorado, or even if the subspecies described way back when are held as valid, but from my memories of the place and my experience with the American west…you’re just going to get visceral anti predator reaction to any and all reintroduction efforts of any medium sized or larger predators.

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According to the 2003 taxonomy revision by Nowak, the Plains Wolf is apparently the subspecies that lives along the British Columbia coast and central Canada between the ranges of Northern and Eastern Timber Wolf. Their historical range I guess was the Midwest and most of the central US Rockies and that’s why the BC and central Canadian populations are geographically separated. Another paper says that though the subspecies live in a variety of habitats because of synonymizing of other subspecies, the term Plains Wolf has become inaccurate, but the name has been solidified.

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Here is a discussion on this very subject on Reddit (I was not the author):

" The myth of “Canadian Gray Wolf” comes from deliberate mis-interpretation of common colloquial names (timber wolf, etc.) and the term sub-species. The “timber wolf” is simply another name for the gray wolf. There is no such thing as a “Canadian Gray Wolf.” It is a term that has been embraced by the anti-wolf crowd and is purely fiction. Common names for animals can vary from place to place. For example, the terms cougar, puma and mountain lion all refer to the same animal. California calls them mountain lions, Oregon and Washington call them cougars. South America calls them pumas. Florida calls them panthers. Timber wolf is just another name for the gray wolf. The terms brush wolf and prairie wolf are old names for the coyote.

What is a sub-species? A sub-species is a regional variant of a species, similar to a breed of domestic animal. Nature creates subspecies, humans create breeds. A German Shepard, for example, is a different breed than a Siberian Husky, but their both still the same species of dog (Canis familiaris). Subspecies are part of the speciation process, where a population is genetically isolated long enough to evolve characteristics that make it genetically incompatible with the original population and thus its own species but are not distinct on their own. Currently in North America, there are five recognized subspecies of the gray wolf. These are all the same species of wolf: Canis lupus. Geographic separation and habitat has given rise to regional variants that have some minor distinct characteristics, but are still genetically the same species. These are:

The arctic wolf (Canis lupus arctos*), found on the Canadian archipelago islands;

The eastern wolf, also called the eastern timber wolf or Algonquin wolf (Canis lupus lyacon), found in eastern Canada and formerly the U.S. northeast; The plains wolf, also called the buffalo wolf (Canis lupus nubilis), formerly found across the Great Plains, now found in central Canada and the Upper Midwest; The Mexican gray wolf, also called the lobo (Canis lupus balieyi), formerly found throughout northern Mexico and the American southwest, now reintroduced to small portions of their former range in New Mexico, Arizona and northern Mexico; The western gray wolf, also called the Rocky Mountain gray wolf (Canis lupus occidentalis), formerly widespread across the mountainous regions of western North America.

Historically, species and subspecies were labeled based on physical characteristics like skull morphology, coat color and size. Modern genetics have replaced this system. The taxonomists (scientists that name and study species and subspecies) of the 1800s and 1900s were going off of physical characteristics when designating species and tended to favor breaking a species into many separate subspecies based on minute differences. This system had problems. With some species of birds that display sexual dimorphism, the males and females were thought to be separate species until they were observed mating, for example. Black and gray-coated wolves were thought to be separate species, until it was shown that both could be born in the same litter. Early taxonomists designated some 40-odd different sub-species of the gray wolf in North America. Genetic analysis of historic specimens of these “subspecies” had shown that by and large, they did not show enough genetic diversity to be considered a valid classification. Subspecies like the northern Rocky Mountain gray wolf (Canis lupus irremotus), the southern Rocky Mountain gray wolf (Canis lupus youngi), and the Texas wolf (Canis lupus monstrabilis) did not actually exist and were instead the western gray wolves (C. l. occidentalis) and Mexican gray wolves (C. l. balieyi) respectively. Mutliple genetic studies analyzing the genes of historic wolf specimens (those killed prior to reintroduction efforts), wolves naturally expanding their range back into the American west, mostly in northwestern Montana, and those reintroduced into Yellowstone and central Idaho from Canadian populations have shown that there is zero genetic difference in these wolves. They are the same species. They are the same subspecies. They are native. Here is a study looking for genetic markers used in identifying native and non-native wolves. Here is another one looking specifically at the genetics of wolves from the Pacific Northwest and California and comparing historical specimens to modern wolves. Here is a link to JSTOR"

" The idea that wolves in Canada are somehow a larger, more vicious, more dangerous species is unscientific, unproven, and unsupported by all genetic and biological research. Gray wolves in Canada are the same species as gray wolves in Mexico, Europe, and the Middle East. Furthermore, gray wolves in the Northern Rockies are the same subspecies, Canis lupus occidentalis. Occidentalis is native to the American west. We do not have a distinct species or subspecies of wolf that begins or ends at the Canadian border. Wolves routinely disperse (leave their birth pack to find a mate) over thousands of miles. OR-7 was not an outlier, this is common behavior. This dispersal behavior spreads genetic information across huge geographic areas and prevents the geographic isolation necessary for a distinct species or subspecies to arise.

The wolves reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho came from two populations in the Canadian Rockies, the first near Hinton, Alberta (near Jasper National Park) and the second from Fort St. John, British Columbia. These areas were selected specifically because they were similar in both habitat and prey base to Yellowstone and Idaho. They were not Mexican wolves. Gray wolves had begun migrating down from Canada on their own and repopulating part of northwestern Montana in the 1980s. These wolves have been shown, through genetic testing, to have come from the region near Jasper National Park, the same location that the wolves for the 1995 reintroduction effort were sourced."

" Wolves are wolves. There is no behavioral difference between wolves occurring in Canada and wolves occurring the lower 48. This belief that Canadian wolves are more aggressive, more dangerous or form bigger packs is fiction and found only in the anti-wolf narrative. Wolves in far northern Canada and Alaska are slightly larger than those found at lower latitudes, however. There can be a 10%-20% size difference. Mexican gray wolves are the smallest North American subspecies, weighing in at 60-80 lbs., while the Great Plains wolves (Canis lupus nubilis) of Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park have been known to weigh in closer to 150 lbs. Harvest records from Idaho, Montana and Wyoming show that the average weight of the wolves killed in legal hunts post-reintroduction are 90-110 lbs. for males and 80-100 lbs. for females. This is within the range of historical reports from the same regions. Wolves in Yellowstone have weighed in at record weights, with two males from one pack weighing in at 141 lbs. and 148 lbs., the largest wolves recorded in the U.S. Both of these wolves were from the Mollie’s pack, an interior Yellowstone pack known for hunting bison. Mollie’s pack wolves tend to run larger than the park average and this is thought to be due to the fact that they are bison hunters. Bigger prey both provides more food and requires larger wolves to take down. Wolves, whether Mexican gray wolves or Rocky Mountain gray wolves, preform the same function in the ecosystem. If every Mexican wolf died tomorrow, wolves from the Northern Rockies could be introduced to the Southwest to fill the gap with no impact. This has already been done with elk. The original elk of the Southwest, the Mirriam’s subspecies, was wiped out. The same happened with the Manitoba elk and Eastern elk. Rocky Mountain elk have been introduced into parts of country inhabited by those extinct subspecies to fill the gap. Rocky Mountain elk now live in Tennessee, Wisconsin, Arizona, New Mexico and California, among other places. The species matters, the subspecies does not. Carter Niemeyer put it very well during the early arguments over wolf reintroduction to Yellowstone: “Canis lupus irremotus? More like Canis lupus irregardless.” The gray wolf is the gray wolf, whether found in Canada or Mexico. Nature writer Rick Bass put it a different way in his book The New Wolves, in reference to Rocky Mountain elk released in the mountains of the Southwest to replace the extinct Merriam’s elk, but it applies to wolves as well: “They are the same language, just a slightly different dialect. The land still recognizes them.” "


This is really something to hear – when I was going to school out there, wolves were limited to a handful of places in the state. The two I remember were the North Fork of the Flathead in Glacier, and Nine-mile Valley.


This 2012 publication by Chambers et al. in North American Fauna dives into the complex history and current status of wolf subspecies: https://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc700981/

Popular beliefs about predators in general are almost always rife with drama-laden mythology, usually including elements of variations with “evil” behaviors and super-secret reintroductions by sinister wildlife agencies. Locally, my favorites are the ones that come up every time someone sees a Fisher in the wild. It is apparently the end of the world for chicken farmers, and the result of DEC introducing them to terrorize anti-conservation rural voters. Never mind that they’ve been well-reestablished in the region for decades.

One nit I’d pick with capeleopard’s great explanatory post is that more and more genetic evidence points to the Eastern Wolf being a distinct species with some minor genetic inputs from Gray Wolf, but the main lineage having diverged from its common ancestor with the Gray Wolf a very long time ago and is more closely related to the Coyote and Red Wolf (Canis rufus) than Gray Wolf subspecies. This matter is still far from resolved and there are other hypotheses on the genetic history of the Eastern Wolf that also have legitimate standing, but it seems a distinction worth making, especially as it actually does reflect notable differences in size and behavior compared to the negligible differences between definite Gray Wolf subspecies.


Actually, interestingly enough, more recent genetic studies indicate that basically every North American elk east of the Pacific Coast Range belongs or belonged to the same subspecies: C. canadensis canadensis, indicating that the extinct Eastern elk population and the Rocky Mountain elk reintroduced to replace it were one and the same subspecies. The only other North American elk distinct enough to be a subspecies are the Roosevelt and tule elk. This is also the system currently adopted by iNaturalist. Your point still stands though.


On the contrary, I’ve heard that Canadian wolves are the politest of all canids. Some accounts claim they apologize profusely to their prey mid-consumption


Thanks - very thorough and well researched!

I can’t say I saw them a lot, just that it was always a present danger whenever you’re hiking because you knew you were in their territory. My first non-Yellowstone wolf was a pair near Great Falls in 2011. Can’t say I got good responses when I told people I saw them through binoculars instead of a gun, but I guess you can’t please everybody. I haven’t seen a wolf since I left Montana but my property in Oregon is on the fringes of a well known pack. I’m hoping to see one of their members soon but I heard the alpha female passed away last summer and the pack has slowly been breaking apart since.


Your experience is why I kicked beef out of my life many years before going vegetarian. I had no desire to hand over money to people like that.

A wolf is one of the shyest animals in relation to humans. Researchers have spent years in the field without seeing one. People with the desire to rid areas of wolves will say whatever they can to justify it, and such misinformation will spread to other like-minded people. People often believe what they want to believe because it might get them what they want, not because it is factual.


I think that very true, and extremely prevalent in many aspects of society given our current conspiracy politics. in case of interest in a collared wolf from OR traveling far south into CA - California’s Newest Wolf Travels Far South to Mono County - Center for Biological Diversity


I remember one of the guys running the school’s ‘research ranch’ facility saying that when he was growing up, if you mentioned seeing a coyote on the way to your neighbor’s, the response was “Did you get him?” The unspoken assumption was that you would automatically take a shot at the critter.

In case of interest in a Smithsonian Magazine article on the CA wolves: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/wolf-discovered-california-conservation-ranchers-180977179/?utm_source=smithsoniandaily&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=20210316-daily-responsive&spMailingID=44632093&spUserID=NzQwNDU3NTE2MDcS1&spJobID=1961342078&spReportId=MTk2MTM0MjA3OAS2

This is a very interesting thread, funny I never heard about the Canadian wolf problem before.