We often talk about the need to restore more wolves in more places. But where would these wolves actually live? Earlier this year we published an updated version of our “Places for Wolves” report that answers that very question, and Wolf Awareness Week is a good opportunity to dive a little deeper.
The report includes a series of documents that lay out Defenders’ case for continued wolf recovery all across the United States. In the foundation document, we discuss the history of wolves and Defenders’ role in bringing these majestic animals back to the landscape. Then in our vision document, we outline a blueprint for restoring more wolves to the lower 48. In each region we highlight the potential and the challenges for bringing wolves back. (See Reporter Resources for the full report.)
Pacific Northwest (See factsheet with map)
Potential: The Olympic Peninsula, Siskiyou Mountains and Sierra Nevada Mountains offer excellent wolf habitat.
Challenges: Intolerance from some ranchers has increased in recent years, putting pressure on state wildlife managers to lethally remove wolves that are involved in livestock conflicts. Fortunately, Oregon and Washington both have strong state management plans on the books, and California will likely follow with a plan of its own to protect the future of wolves in the state. Connectivity is also becoming a greater concern as wolf numbers in the Northern Rockies are being driven down.
Southern Rockies (See factsheet with map)
Potential: Colorado is home to 300,000 elk and some of the best remaining wolf habitat in the entire country. The Uinta Mountains of Utah and parts of northern Arizona and New Mexico provide key linkages to other wolf populations. According to statewide polling, 71 percent of Coloradans want wolves restored to their state. A feasibility study conducted at the behest of Congress for the US Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that Colorado could provide a home for more than 1000 wolves.
Challenges: Now that Wyoming has allowed wolves to be shot on sight year-round across more than 80 percent of the state, it could be virtually impossible for northern gray wolves to make it to Colorado on their own. Aggressive hunting and trapping all across the Northern Rockies makes it unlikely that wolves will get to Utah either. Further, spurred on by the Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, Utah has a law on the books barring the return of wolves once federal protections are removed.
Northern Rockies (See factsheet with map)
Potential: Studies have estimated that the current biological carrying capacity of the Northern Rockies could be as high as 5,000 wolves or more. However, we have already seen that the social intolerance toward wolves among politically powerful groups has pushed state agencies to manage for significantly lower numbers.
Challenges: With Idaho, Montana and Wyoming already pursuing aggressive hunting and trapping, it will be an ongoing challenge just to maintain current wolf population levels. All three states plan to continue driving numbers down and they are allowed to do so under the US Fish and Wildlife’s minimum standards requiring only 100 – 150 wolves per state. Wolves cannot fulfill their ecological role if their numbers decline to these levels.
Southwest (See factsheet with map)
Potential: The ecoregion surrounding and including Grand Canyon National Park has excellent wolf habitat. Smaller pockets of habitat can also be found in northern New Mexico and west Texas.
Challenges: Despite strong public support, there is very vocal opposition to restoring Mexican wolves outside of the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area. There are only about 75 individual wolves across New Mexico and Arizona. Keeping wolf numbers so low has only exacerbated genetic issues that resulted from the wolves’ earlier brush with extinction.
Great Lakes (See factsheet with map)
Potential: The Great Lakes gray wolf population is the largest in the lower 48 and is well connected to Canadian populations.
Challenges: Wolves in this region have been delisted and are now being managed by the states but there are concerns, most notably among tribal communities, that some state wolf hunting plans are too aggressive. We will continue to monitor the population to ensure it remains healthy.
Northeast (See factsheet with map)
Potential: Northern Maine and upstate New York have good wolf habitat that could support smaller populations of wolves dispersing from Canada.
Challenges: The St. Lawrence River creates a natural barrier that might prevent wolves recolonizing the Northeast from Canada. Further studies need to be conducted to determine support for reintroducing wolves.