While large carnivores are recovering in Europe, assessing their distributions can help to predict and mitigate conflicts with human activities. Modeling their distributions presents several challenges due to i) their imperfect detectability, ii) their dynamic ranges over time and iii) their monitoring at large scales consisting mainly of opportunistic data without a formal measure of the sampling effort. Not accounting for these issues can lead to flawed inference about the distribution. Here, we focused on the wolf (Canis lupus) that has been recolonizing France since the early 90s. We evaluated the sampling effort a posteriori as the number of observers present per year in a cell based on their location and professional activities. We then assessed wolf range dynamics from 1993 to 2014, while accounting for species imperfect detection and time- and space-varying sampling effort using dynamic site-occupancy models. Ignoring the effect of sampling effort on species detectability led to underestimating the number of occupied sites by 50% on average. Colonization increased with increasing number of occupied sites at short and long-distances, as well as with increasing forest cover, farmland cover and mean altitude. Colonization decreased when high-altitude increased. The growth rate, defined as the number of sites newly occupied in a given year divided by the number of occupied sites in the previous year, decreased over time, from over 100% in 1994 to 5% in 2014. This suggests that wolves are expanding in France but at a rate that is slowing down. Our work shows that opportunistic data can be analyzed with species distribution models that control for imperfect detection, pending a quantification of sampling effort. Our approach has the potential for being used by decision-makers to target sites where large carnivores are likely to occur and mitigate conflicts.