Educational Series: Persecuted Wild Wolves Need Our Help to Survive

By Nick Engelfried
One of the most successful large predators ever to evolve, wolves once ranged through forests and plains across most of the Northern Hemisphere–including Europe, Asia, and North America. Wolves’ natural intelligence, social behavior, and adaptability to a wide range of habitat types helped them become one of the most widespread mammals in the world; but even this has not been enough to protect them from persecution by humans armed with guns and traps. By the early twentieth century, wolves had been exterminated over vast areas of their former range.

Wildlife experts generally recognize two distinct species of wolves. By far the most common and widely distributed is the gray wolf, which originally ranged over most of North America. Gray wolves are also the only wolf species native to Europe or Asia. Some scientists divide gray wolves into several subspecies, which in North America include the Arctic wolf, northwestern wolf, Great Plains wolf, and Mexican wolf. The Mexican wolf, in particular, is usually regarded as a genetically distinct form of gray wolf that requires its own conservation efforts. By the middle of the twentieth century, gray wolves were eliminated from all of the contiguous United States except for a couple of small populations in Minnesota and Michigan.

The near-extermination of gray wolves south of the Canadian border is a wildlife tragedy of immense proportions. However, surviving populations in Canada and Alaska meant that gray wolves as a species were never at serious risk of imminent extinction, allowing them to slowly re-establish themselves in parts of U.S. after the species was protected. In contrast, the world’s only other wolf species, the red wolf, very nearly disappeared altogether.

Red wolves are slightly smaller than their more wide-ranging cousins, occupying an ecological niche somewhere between that of a gray wolf and a coyote. This distinct wolf species is native only to the forests of the southeastern United States, and its smaller range made it even more vulnerable to extinction. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the U.S. government actively encouraged the slaughter of wolves as well as other large predatory mammals. These living beings were regarded as mere “vermin” that preyed on livestock and competed with human hunters for wild prey. By the 1960s, red wolves had been reduced to only one small population clinging to survival in southeastern Texas and northwestern Louisiana. Fortunately, by that time the public’s attitude toward wolves was finally beginning to shift.

For thousands of years before the arrival of European colonists, wolves and Native Americans had co-existed successfully, showing it is very possible for humans and predatory animals to live in the same landscape without conflict. By the late 1940s, as wolves and other predators disappeared and as native forests and prairies succumbed to agriculture and development, people like the conservationist Aldo Leopold were beginning to ask what crucial role these animals might play in keeping ecosystems healthy. In a celebrated essay, “Thinking Like a Mountain,” Leopold described how his views on predators changed after shooting a wolf for the last time and seeing a “fierce green fire” die in her eyes. He went on to become a leading advocate for the conservation of predators and wild places.

The passage of the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 1973 marked a turning point in the fortunes of wolves and countless other vanishing animals. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which had formerly headed up efforts to exterminate wolves, was given the task of undoing the damage and creating conservation plans that would allow wolf populations to once again reach healthy levels. As a direct result of this, the last few red wolves were humanely captured and removed from the wild–where they were at imminent risk from hunters and habitat loss–to start a captive breeding program for the species. In 1987, red wolves were reintroduced to an area in North Carolina deemed to be suitable habitat. This small population has now grown to about forty wild wolves, with another two hundred still living in captivity.

Meanwhile, the end of government-sanctioned persecution has allowed gray wolves to return to parts of their native range in the contiguous states. Wolf populations expanded naturally down from Canada into the Northern Rockies and Great Lakes regions. In places like Yellowstone National Park, gray wolves were actively reintroduced by wildlife officials, allowing them to return to their ancestral hunting grounds there more quickly. The re-establishment of wolves in Yellowstone is one of North America’s greatest conservation success stories; not only is a small population of wolves now thriving, their presence has also had benefits for many other species. For example, elk and bison carcasses from wolf kills now provide food for scavengers and opportunistic predators like grizzly bears.

Small numbers of gray wolves have also established themselves in the states of Oregon and Washington, with occasional sightings as far south as California and Colorado. In the American Southwest, in a story reminiscent of efforts that saved the red wolf, the last seven Mexican gray wolves were taken from the wild in the late seventies to establish a captive breeding program. Descendants of these wolves were reintroduced to their native habitat in 1998, but their numbers remain critically low.

Indeed, animal lovers still have much work to do before wolves can recover anything like their former numbers in North America. While public opinion about wolves has shifted considerably since the days when they were systematically hunted down as “vermin,” many people still regard them as nuisances or as threats to cattle and other livestock. While the wanton destruction of wolves is no longer legal, they continue to face threats from poachers. In the year 2013 alone, over ten percent of the wild red wolf population was illegally killed–a disaster for this critically endangered species.

Meanwhile, in a case of politics trumping the best available science, gray wolves in the northern Rockies were removed from the Endangered Species List in 2011 through a controversial Congressional rider. This means a certain number of wolves in this region can be hunted legally each year. The Trump administration is now attempting to remove Endangered Species Act protections for all gray wolves throughout their range.

While hunting remains perhaps the most immediate threat to wolves in North America, it is far from the only danger. Wolves need wild landscapes and health prey animal populations, and logging in places like Alaska’s Tongass National Forest is a direct threat to their survival. The only wild population of red wolves lives in a low-elevation coastal area susceptible to rising sea levels caused by climate change. Perhaps the most important thing you can do to ensure a future for wolves is contact your elected lawmakers. Let your state and federal representatives know you want them to take action on climate change and prioritize efforts to restore wolves and other imperiled wildlife species.

If the recent history of wolves in North America has taught us anything, it is that these well-adapted animals truly are resilient and can recover when the threat of human persecution is removed. For thousands of years wolves have ranged across the Northern Hemisphere, forming a vital component of natural ecosystems. By taking action before it is too late we can make sure these incredible animals continue to roam free for thousands more years to come.

Photo credit: National Park Service

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Nick Engelfried Writes About Animals, the Environment, and Conservation for the ForceChange network

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