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Historically, Kentucky was home to two wolf species: the gray wolf (Canis lupus) and the red wolf (Canis rufus). However, their numbers gradually declined as human population in the state increased. Today, neither wolf species can be found in Kentucky.
About Gray Wolves
Measuring between 24 and 35 inches at the shoulder and weighing in at between 50 and 175 pounds, gray wolves are the largest of all wild canine species. They live in packs of roughly five to nine members, with only the dominant pair breeding. With a strict social hierarchy, all members of the pack must know their place. These wolves hunt collaboratively, primarily for large prey, such as elk and bison, but also will hunt smaller mammals or scavenge when food is more scarce.
About Red Wolves
Although red wolves are closely related to their gray counterparts, they can be distinguished by their narrower proportions, smaller size -- usually measuring no more than 31 inches at the shoulder -- and rusty red pelage, which is most prominent during winter months. Like gray wolves, they live in fairly small packs, comprising of one alpha pair and their offspring. Members of the pack communicate with one another through pheromones, body language and vocalizations, and bond through touch. They tend to go for smaller prey, such as raccoons, rabbits and small deer.
At the start of the 1800s and earlier, gray wolves could be found all across the United States. However, as the amount of human settlers increased, these creatures were seen as a pest -- threatening livestock -- and a potential danger. Control programs were put in place that involved shooting, trapping and poisoning gray wolves. By the late 1800s and early 1900s, they were gone from Kentucky -- and much of the rest of the United States -- only occupying around 3 percent of their original range. Like gray wolves, red wolves were considered pests and exterminated without prejudice. By the 1920s, they were gone from Kentucky and the southern states. By the 1980s, they were declared extinct in the wild.
By the 1960s, gray wolves were federally protected under a precursor to the the Endangered Species Act. While this helped to boost the species' numbers, around only 5,000 gray wolves exist in the United States today, and it's unlikely they'll ever return to Kentucky. Although red wolves were declared extinct in the wild, a number of captive wolves were used in a breeding program and, in 1987, they were released back into the wild. At present, only one true wild population exists, in North Carolina.
- Animal Diversity Web: Canis Lupus
- Animal Diversity Web: Canis Rufus
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Endangered Red Wolf
- Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management: Wolves
- Center for Biological Diversity: Restoring the Gray Wolf
- Wildlife Conservation Society: Gray Wolf
- International Wolf Center: Red Wolf Biology and Status
- Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images