Gray Wolf

Canis lupus
Gray wolf laying in the snow.

Photo: Sheila Newenham

What to Do If You See a Wolf

If you see a wolf, do not run. Do not surprise the wolf. Make noise to ensure that the wolf is aware of your presence. A wolf is not likely to attack a person unless it feels trapped or provoked or if you appear to be prey (which is why you should not run). If you are with a group, gather everyone together if possible and move as a group.

Respect the wolf’s space, and do not approach the animal. If the wolf sees you, stand your ground; look as large as possible by standing up straight and putting your arms up in the air and slowly back away. If possible, go inside a building or get into a vehicle. If a wolf makes contact with you, always try to fight it off. Throw rocks, use sticks. Do not play dead.

Description & Identification

Most gray wolves have coats of grizzled gray or brown with lighter fur on the undersides. However, wolves may also have solid coats of black or white. They have bushy tails, narrow chests, long legs, and large feet.

Average Height: 27 to 33 inches at the shoulder

Average Weight: 60 to 130 pounds (adult male); 45 to 80 pounds (adult female)

Average Length: 4½ to 6 feet (including 15 to 20 inch tail)

Wolves are the largest wild canine in Illinois.


Wolf tracks are approximately 4½ to 5 inches in length and 3 to 3½ inches wide. Unlike dog tracks, wolf tracks often appear with the hind track on top of the front track (known as direct registration). The diagram on this page shows the size difference between coyote, dog, and wolf tracks. Keep in mind that dog tracks are highly variable in size.

Animals Mistaken for Gray Wolves

Visual identification of wolves can be very difficult. Inexperienced observers can easily confuse a coyote for a wolf, especially during the winter, when coyotes have thicker winter coats and thus appear larger. In addition, wolf–dog hybrids and many dog breeds can look nearly identical to wolves. The graphic on this page highlights some of the key features used to distinguish coyotes from wolves.

Legal Status

In Illinois, gray wolves are currently listed as a state endangered species and they are also protected as a federally endangered species. On Oct. 29, 2020, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that they would be removing gray wolves from the federal endangered species list for the lower 48 states. The rule was published in the Federal Register on Nov. 3, 2020 and took effect 60 days after that on Jan. 4, 2021. Following a February 10, 2022, court order, gray wolves in the contiguous 48 states, with the exception of the Northern Rocky Mountain population, are once again protected under the Endangered Species Act as threatened in Minnesota and endangered in the remaining states.

Gray wolves have been protected by the Illinois Wildlife Code since 2015. Gray wolves may not be hunted, killed, or harassed for any reason. If you feel that your person or property is being threatened by gray wolves, contact the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR). The IDNR will work with you to identify the threat and assist you with control measures.

Wolf–dog hybrids have the same legal status as dogs and are not regulated by the IDNR. Wolf–dog hybrids do not make good pets. Although not expressly prohibited, wolf–dog  hybrids may be confiscated by local animal control authorities as the rabies vaccines used for dogs are not certified for wolf–dog hybrids. Contact your local animal control agency with questions regarding wolf/dog hybrids.

Gray wolves were eliminated from Illinois before 1860 due to hunting pressure. The IDNR is unaware of any self-sustaining populations or packs currently residing in Illinois, but wolves originating from existing populations in Wisconsin (primarily), Michigan, and Minnesota have been documented moving through or temporarily residing in the state.

Confirmed Sightings of Wolves

To date, there have been 11 confirmed gray wolves in Illinois since 2002. Genetic information available from some of the wolves indicates that they came from the Western Great Lakes Distinct Population Segment—most likely from Wisconsin.

  • A female wolf was killed by a vehicle in Grundy County in February 2015.
  • A female wolf was killed by a vehicle in La Salle County in December 2013.
  • A female wolf that had been radio-collared in Wisconsin was tracked into Stephenson County in December 2012. The radio signal was not detected the following week. In March 2013, the wolf was found dead near Apple Canyon Lake in Jo Daviess County.
  • A female wolf was trapped and released in Whiteside County in December 2012.
  • A male wolf and a female wolf were killed in Jo Daviess County in 2011 about 4 miles apart.
  • A male wolf was killed by a coyote hunter in Kane County in 2009.
  • A male wolf was killed by a coyote hunter in Jo Daviess County in 2008.
  • A male wolf was killed by a vehicle immediately north of Chain O’Lakes State Park in Lake County in 2005.
  • A male wolf was shot in Pike County in 2005.
  • A male wolf was shot during a coyote hunt in Marshall County in 2002.

All 11 confirmed wolves were young (6 male, 5 female). Young wolves (3 years old or less) leave their native packs and may travel long distances to try to establish a pack of their own or to join another pack. This is typical wolf behavior. It is likely that a small number of other wolves have passed through Illinois over the last decade on their way to surrounding states. Photos and/or tracks of these animals may exist, but without genetic information it is impossible to confirm whether these animals were truly wild (from Wisconsin) or perhaps were wolf–dog hybrids kept as pets that either escaped or were released intentionally by their owners.

Report a Sighting

The IDNR is interested in any information the public can provide about possible wolf sightings in Illinois. If you have recently seen a gray wolf in Illinois, please report the sighting to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Please include specific location information and send photos or track castings if available.

Reviewable evidence is very helpful during efforts to identify the animal and the location. Please provide any documentation, including original images of individual animals or tracks that you were able to obtain. When documenting tracks or other signs, be sure to photograph individual tracks as well as groups of tracks. Include in the image an object to aid in the determination of size including a ruler, tape measure, or common object of standard size (coin or paper money, business card, etc). Also include images of the wider area where the tracks were found, including the tracks as well as features that can be located if the tracks are destroyed.

An IDNR biologist will review the information provided and attempt to use it to confirm the species and location of the sighting.

Figure of a silhouette of a gray wolf and a man to display size comparison.

Illustrator: Lynn Smith

Gray wolf tracks next to tape measure.
Gray wolf tracks next to tape measure.

Photo: Terry Kem

Graphic showing size difference between coyote, dog and wolf tracks.
Illustration of the size difference between a coyote, large dog, and wolf tracks.

Illustration: Lynn Hawkinson Smith

Wolf pack greeting each other in the snow.
A wolf pack greeting each other.

Photo: Sheila Newenham