By the mid 20th century, the grey wolf (Canis lupus) was exterminated from most of the conterminous United States (cUS) and Mexico. However, because wolves disperse over long distances, extant populations in Canada and Alaska might have retained a substantial proportion of the genetic diversity once found in the cUS. We analysed mitochondrial DNA sequences of 34 pre-extermination wolves and found that they had more than twice the diversity of their modern conspecifics, implying a historic population size of several hundred thousand wolves in the western cUS and Mexico. Further, two-thirds of the haplotypes found in the historic sample are unique. Sequences from Mexican grey wolves (C. l. baileyi) and some historic grey wolves defined a unique southern clade supporting a much wider geographical mandate for the reintroduction of Mexican wolves than currently planned. Our results highlight the genetic consequences of population extinction within Ice Age refugia and imply that restoration goals for grey wolves in the western cUS include far less area and target vastly lower population sizes than existed historically.