Published on February 7, 2013 by Amy
The gray, or timber, wolf’s story is one of the most compelling tales of American wildlife. Once, the wolf was plentiful in most of North America — from the Arctic to central Mexico, and from the east coast to Alaska. But European colonists, and subsequently Western settlers, hunted it ruthlessly, systematically extirpating it from almost all of its historic range south of Canada.
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In the Old Country, where gray wolves were the victims of folklore that depicted them as a threat to livestock and people, Europeans killed them as vermin for centuries. American colonists continued to see wolves as malicious killers. Within about a decade of the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth Rock, New England colonies began placing a price on the wolf’s head. By the end of the eighteenth century, gray wolves had been nearly wiped out in the Northeast.
In the West, the wolf held on. Probably numbering in the hundreds of thousands, it preyed upon deer, bison, elk, and other large, hoofed animals. As the West was settled and became the domain of livestock, however, uncontrolled hunting depleted wild prey, and wolves turned to feeding on livestock. Ranchers hired hunters to kill wolves wherever the predators were found. In 1914, the federal government entered the fray, launching its own predator-control efforts. Even in the national parks, wolves and other predators, including bears and mountain lions, were trapped, poisoned, or hunted down until federal control agents killed Yellowstone National Park’s last wolf around 1930.
The drive to extirpate the wolf, however, stemmed largely from misunderstandings and myths about the animal. While wolves will prey on livestock, the general perception of their impact is often exaggerated. Studies of wolf predation on livestock indicate that wolves kill a very small percentage of livestock yearly. In the Northern Rockies, a private compensation fund that pays ranchers for wolf depredations verified only 76 cattle and 192 sheep lost to wolves during its first 10 years in operation. The key to human-wolf coexistence is managing the animals to discourage livestock predation and encourage wariness of humans.
But fear of the wolf was harder to kill off than the wolf itself. By the end of the 1970s, the American gray wolf barely survived outside of Canada and Alaska, the only places where it remained numerous. Its range in the lower 48 states was restricted to the northern reaches of the Great Lakes States, primarily Minnesota. A victim of prejudice, habitat destruction, and loss of prey, the gray wolf in most states became a piece of history.
Wolves and the Endangered Species Act
The gray wolf was federally listed as endangered in a few states in 1967. Wolves in Minnesota were downlisted to threatened status in 1978, which allowed federal agents to kill wolves that attacked livestock and thus helped reduce opposition to wolf conservation among livestock producers. At the same time, the federal government extended endangered status to the species throughout the lower 48.
The wolf has benefitted from protection under the Endangered Species Act in two tangible ways. First, the wolves in Minnesota, as well as Northern Rockies wolves that began to roam from Canada into Montana in the mid-1980s, were protected from control efforts, giving them a chance to form stable populations. Second, the federal government initiated reintroduction programs designed to restore wolves to areas from which they had been extirpated. The fight to bring back wolves, however, has been fraught with difficulty. In the end, the conservation actions taken under the federal wolf recovery plan serve as a lesson for the successes and challenges that other species-reintroduction programs — especially for large carnivores — will face.
The movement to restore gray wolves to the U.S. was spurred in part by Canadian wolves that began to travel into Montana on their own. In 1984, the discovery of Glacier National Park’s “magic pack,” the first recent generation of gray wolves born on the U.S. side of the Rockies, gave biologists hope that wolves could be successfully reintroduced to portions of North America. Yellowstone National Park was selected as an ideal location for reintroductions. But reintroduction efforts met with fierce opposition from the livestock industry, which feared that wild wolves would prey upon their stock and damage their livelihoods. Surveys of park visitors, however, indicated that the majority wanted wolves back. Ultimately, conservationists settled on designating reintroduced wolves as “experimental, nonessential” populations, which permitted more flexibility in the management of the wolves. In addition, Defenders of Wildlife, a private conservation organization, established a “wolf compensation fund” to reimburse ranchers for lost livestock, an offer which helped to reduce rancher opposition. Throughout the fight to reintroduce the species, the National Wildlife Federation has played a key role in galvanizing public support of wolves, seeking solutions to alleviate people’s fears, and ensuring appropriate legal protection for reintroduced wolves.
In 1995, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) trapped 14 wolves in Canada and released them into Yellowstone park. At the same time, FWS released 15 Canadian wolves in central Idaho’s Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. Additional Canadian wolves were released in Yellowstone and Idaho in 1996. In both areas, the wolves quickly established territories and growing populations. The Nez Perce tribe oversees the management of the Idaho wolves, which includes monitoring the populations and helping to resolve conflicts between ranchers and wild wolves. FWS defined wolf recovery in the Northern Rockies as the establishment of at least 10 breeding pairs for three consecutive years in Yellowstone, Idaho, and Montana. Within four years of reintroduction, both reintroduced populations had attained 10 breeding pairs — a promising step for wolf recovery in the Northern Rockies.
In 1998, FWS tackled gray wolf reintroduction in the Southwest, releasing 11 captive-reared Mexican wolves into their native territory in Arizona’s Apache National Forest. Mexican wolves are the most southern-occurring and genetically distinct gray wolf in North America. The released animals were descendants of wild wolves that FWS had brought into captivity in the 1970s when it became clear that the Mexican gray wolf was on the verge of extinction in the wild. Since their release, the Mexican wolves have struggled to survive in a community that fears their presence. Five of the initial 11 wolves were shot, and others were lost or recaptured. But biologists believe wolves will ultimately reestablish themselves in the Southwest with human assistance. FWS is also studying the potential for wolf reintroductions in New York’s Adirondack Park and in Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula.
Meanwhile, wolves in some regions have been taking over lost habitat on their own. Northwestern Montana is now home to wolves that moved in from Canada. These wolves are protected as endangered. The Great Lakes population has grown and expanded from northern Minnesota into parts of Wisconsin, Michigan, central Minnesota, and perhaps the Dakotas. Finally, in 1999, a lone female wolf made her way from Idaho into Oregon, sparking the debate about how and when wolves might begin to repopulate other areas of their historic range.
Wolves currently number over 5,000 in Alaska and more than 3,000 in Canada, but these populations are also under assault. In southern Canada, wolf numbers are declining due to hunting, trapping, and loss of habitat. In the lower 48 states, with the exception of the Great Lakes region, wolves still need strong protection. Nevertheless, opponents of wolf recovery — primarily livestock interests — have sought to stop wolf reintroductions and to force removal of reintroduced wolves from Yellowstone National Park, Idaho, and the Southwest. Anti-wolf activists are also among the many powerful special interests seeking to weaken the Endangered Species Act. The FWS recently proposed to downlist endangered populations of wolves in the Northern Rockies and the Northeastern United States to threatened. While this reclassification reflects some success in efforts to recover wolves in the Northern U.S. Rockies and opens the door to increased state involvement in new efforts to re-establish wolves in the Northeast, wolves are still missing from many areas of historic U.S. habitat. Conservationists continue to work diligently to promote wolf recovery in other appropriate areas, including the Southern Rockies and additional parts of the western U.S., as well as to insure continuing recovery of wolves throughout their historic range. The National Wildlife Federation continues to be a leader in the fight to protect wild wolves in the lower 48, with the ultimate goal of recovering the species completely.