The gray wolf is one of the most iconic creatures of the American landscape with one of the most extensive distributional ranges of any mammal (Nowak 1995). It originally occupied all habitats in North America north of central Mexico and was once found everywhere except the southeastern United States, California west of the Sierra Nevada, and the tropical and subtropical parts of Mexico (Paquet and Carbyn 2003).
Researchers believe several wolf-like species evolved from a common ancestor (Wayne et al. 1995). Canis lupus first appeared in Eurasia during the Pleistocene period, about 1 million years ago (Paquet and Carbyn 2003). The dire wolf (Canis dirus) is thought to be a descendant of the grey wolf (Canis lupus) which migrated to North America around 750,000 years ago (Paquet and Carbyn 2003). Despite superficial similarities to the gray wolf, the two species differed significantly. Today’s largest gray wolves would have been of similar size to an average dire wolf; the largest dire wolves would have been considerably larger than any modern gray wolf (San Diego Zoo 2009). The two species seem to have coexisted for about 400,000 years. As prey began to vanish due to climate changes, the dire wolf gradually became extinct, vanishing completely about 7000 years ago (Paquet and Carbyn 2003).
In 1600, wolves lived in North America from the high Arctic islands to just north of the Valley of Mexico and from Atlantic to Pacific (TRI 2013). Beginning with the earliest European settlements, colonists made all-out war against wolves (Robinson 2005). An increasing human population and the expansion of agriculture decimated gray wolf populations in much of North America (Paquet and Carbyn 2003). In the prairies, the slaughter and extirpation of the bison (Bison bison) in the 1860s and 1870s caused wolf populations to plunge (Paquet and Carbyn 2003). Between 1900 and 1930, overhunting of other ungulate prey and intensive predator control virtually eliminated the wolves from the western United States and adjoining parts of Canada (Robinson 2005; Paquet and Carbyn 2003). By the middle of the twentieth century, relentless hunting, trapping and poisoning brought wolves in the conterminous United States and Mexico to the brink of extinction. By the 1980s, only a few small pockets of survivors remained outside of Minnesota (CBD et al. 2013).
Wolves were first listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973. At that time, wolves in the contiguous 48 states were nearly extinct, reduced to less than one percent of their range and fewer than 1,000 individuals, all in Minnesota (Defenders of Wildlife 2006). Since the 1980s wolf recovery in America has had some great successes, from the reintroduction of wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains, to the revitalization of populations in the western Great Lakes states. Few, if any, wolves roam in the vast majority of their former range where scientists have determined excellent suitable habitat exists. Maintaining federal protections for wolves is essential for continued species recovery (CBD et al. 2013).
In April 2011, Congress approved legislation stripping federal protections from wolves in all of Montana and Idaho, the eastern third of Washington and Oregon, and a small portion of northern Utah (Associated Press 2011). This unprecedented action removed a species from the endangered list by political fiat instead of science (CBD 2013).
In 2012, wolves were subsequently delisted in Wyoming, as protections for wolves were removed in the Great Lakes region. Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Minnesota and Wisconsin began aggressive hunts aimed at reducing up to 60% of the recovering populations (Gibson 2011; CBD 2013; Keefover 2012). The resulting unwarranted assault and outright hostile anti‐wolf policies on wolves commencing immediately after wolves in those regions lost federal protections questions the ability of states to be entrusted with gray wolf survival (CBD et al. 2013).
Today recovery of wolves across the country faces a new threat. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is preparing to remove federal protections from gray wolves that remain on the endangered species list, excepting Mexican gray wolves (CBD 2013). This yet-to-be released proposal has generated considerable concern from leading scientists with expertise in carnivore taxonomy and conservation biology, as well as the conservation community (Bergstrom et al. 2013; and CBD et al. 2013).
- Associated Press. 2011. Feds Take Great Lakes Wolves off Endangered List. Friday, April 15, 2011. http://missoulian.com/news/state-and-regional/article_0581e2ac-6778-11e0-9f1a-001cc4c002e0.html
- Bergstrom, Bradley et al. 2013. Letter to the Secretary of Interior Expressing Serious Concerns Regarding Delisting the Gray Wolf. May 21, 2013. Signed by 16 leading scientists with expertise in carnivore taxonomy and conservation biology.
- Center for Biological Diversity. 2013. Restoring the Gray Wolf. http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/campaigns/gray_wolves/index.html
- Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Earthjustice, Endangered Species Coalition, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Sierra Club. 2013. Wolf Delisting Concerns: Letter to Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell. May 9, 2013.
- Defenders of Wildlife. 2006. Places for Wolves. http://www.defenders.org/resources/publications/programs_and_policy/wildlife_conservation/imperiled_species/wolf/places_for_wolves_2006.pdf
- Gibson, J. William. 2011. The New War on Wolves: As Soon as Federal Protection Ended, the Slaughter Began. Los Angeles Times. December 8, 2011.
- Keefover, Wendy. 2012. Northern Rocky Mountain Wolves: A Public Policy Process Failure. WildEarth Guardians. 45 pages.
- http://www.wildearthguardians.org/site/DocServer/Wolf_Report_20120503.pdf?docID=5202. Accessed May 24, 2013
- Nowak, R.M. 1995. Another Look at Wolf Taxonomy. Pages 375-398 in L.N. Carbyn, S.H. Fritts, and D.R. Seip editors. Ecology and Conservation of Wolves in a Changing World. Canadian Circumpolar Institute, Occasional Publication No. 35. 642 pp.
- Paquet, Paul C., and Ludwig N. Carbyn. 2003. Gray Wolf. IN Feldhammer, North American Wolves. Pages 482-510. http://www.defenders.org/resources/publications/programs_and_policy/wildlife_conservation/imperiled_species/wolf/canada_wolf/gray_wolf_chapter_in_north_american_wolves.pdf
- Robinson, Michael J. 2005. Predatory Bureaucracy: The Extermination of the Wolves and the Transformation of the West. Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado. 473 pages.
- San Diego Zoo. 2009. Dire Wolf Fact Sheet. http://library.sandiegozoo.org/factsheets/_extinct/direwolf/direwolf.htm. Accessed May 22, 2013.
- [TRI] The Rewilding Institute. 2013. Wolf Vision. (http://rewilding.org/rewildit/about-tri/vision/.
- Wayne, R. K., N. Lehman, and T. K. Fuller. 1995. Conservation Genetics of the Gray Wolf. Pages 399–408 in L. N. Carbyn, S. H. Fritts, and D. R. Seip, eds. Ecology and Conservation of Wolves in a Changing World (Occasional Publication No. 35). Canadian Circumpolar Institute, Edmonton, Alberta.
- Wayne, R., and P. Hedrick. 2011. Genetics and Wolf Conservation in the American West: Lessons and Challenges. Heredity 107:16-19.
- Image: http://www.ForestWander.com