Family units, travels, and territories
Like human families, wolves have complex family hierarchies and social structures. A wolf’s basic family unit, a pack, is defined by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) as two or more wolves traveling together in winter in an established territory.
“Packs are typically made up of a breeding pair of wolves and that years’ offspring, in addition to some of the offspring from previous years,” said statewide wolf specialist Ben Maletzke. “When the breeding pair remains consistent for multiple years, this can lead to packs primarily composed of full siblings, and the breeding pair.”
In Washington, wolf packs average around 5 members, although pack sizes have ranged from 2 to 15 wolves. For instance, at the end of the 2022 calendar year the Napeequa pack consisted of two wolves while, during the same winter survey, WDFW counted 10 wolves in the Loup Loup pack. Pack size can depend on a lot of things, including social dynamics and how much prey is available to sustain the pack. In general, a breeding pair of wolves produces one litter of 4–6 pups every spring. In some cases, pups will stay with the pack throughout their lives, although it’s also not uncommon for wolves to disperse from their natal packs. To disperse means to leave the pack that a wolf was born in. At any one time, it is estimated that 10–15% of a state’s wolves are on the move outside of their traditional pack territory.
“Although we don’t know all the reasons why wolves disperse, the most commonly accepted logic is to pursue breeding opportunities outside of their own pack,” said Maletzke.
We saw this happen when, early in 2023, WDFW followed the travels of a collared male wolf originally from the former Naneum pack that dispersed and began travelling with a female uncollared wolf through Yakima and Klickitat counties. These two wolves became known as the Big Muddy pack in WDFW’s Washington Gray Wolf Conservation and Management Annual Report.
Wolves may also disperse when local food resources become scarce, or when forced out by other pack members. And in other cases, a dispersing wolf will become the pack breeder after challenging the current breeding male or female and forcing them out. This happened with the Teanaway pack after longtime breeding male, 32M, was driven from the pack in his old age.
In most packs, there is only one dominant breeding pair along with other non-breeding males and females in the pack. However, in rare instances, a pack may have multiple breeding pairs, with a dominant breeding pair and other subordinate breeders, as well as non-breeding males and females. The dominant breeders are usually the ones that determine the overall pack’s daily activities, but every member of a wolf pack has a role.
“Some help take care of the offspring, such as watching them at rendezvous areas -areas wolves gather when pups are young enough to leave the den but not big enough to travel far enough to hunt yet- while other adults are responsible for hunting or teaching the young to hunt,” Maletzke said.
On the move
In the course of hunting, exploring, and other activities, wolves frequently travel as far as 30 miles in a day, but can regularly cover greater distances while dispersing. They can move quickly- up to 45 miles per hour at a sprint for a short period- or a steady trot of 5 miles per hour for extended periods of time.
Washington’s wolves also sometimes move out of the state- either permanently or temporarily. Over the winter, a wolf that was previously a member of the Tucannon pack (WA139f) left her historical territory and, over the course of several weeks, moved southeast into Oregon. Several other wolves were traveling with her, possibly other members of the Tucannon pack. In the following months, this group, referred to as the WA139f group, has spent time in both Oregon and Washington. At this time, biologists do not know if they have formed a new pack, if the area in Oregon where they are now is where they will stay, if and where they will den, or whether they will return to their historic Tucannon pack territory. Staff continues to monitor them, coordinating with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“Wolves don’t recognize borders so it’s very common for Washington’s wolves to spend time exploring Oregon, Idaho, or provinces in British Columbia,” said Maletzke. “Wolves from those states and Canada sometimes come here as well. Sometimes they travel around for a bit and return and sometimes they become “residents” of those states or provinces.”
Wolf pack territories vary greatly in size. In Washington, the average territory is 193 square miles but they can be significantly smaller, such as the Vulcan pack with an estimated territory of 38 square miles, or much larger, such as the Big Muddy pack at approximately 476 square miles.
Although we know that wolves will often defend their territory against other packs, the area defended is not as clearly defined as a pack map, such as the map of Washington’s wolf packs, may indicate. Territory shifts can occur year -to- year as wolves move around, disperse, or join with other packs. It can also be caused when human pressure causes wolves to move out of an area or wolves in a particular area die. In cases like this, wolves in neighboring territories sometimes move into the vacant territory.
Although there is much known about wolf pack dynamics, there is also still much to learn. Through WDFW’s work to recover gray wolves, we are learning more and gathering more data on wolves in Washington every year. Much of this information is shared through updates WDFW sends out via email and publishes on our website. You can continue to learn with us by signing up to receive updates and checking out WDFW’s reports, videos, and presentations.