Mexican gray wolf (captive), © Wolf Conservation Center

The State of the Wolf

This Wolf Awareness Week, take a look at how far wolf recovery has come over the past several years – and the important work we still have to do.

By the mid-1930s, gray wolves had been exterminated across most of the lower 48 states. In the following decades, Mexican gray wolves and red wolves also disappeared from the wild.

Thankfully, that wasn’t the end of the story. A captive breeding program and reintroduction rescued red wolves from their brush with extinction, paving the way for similar efforts with other wolves. The reintroduction of gray wolves to Yellowstone National Park in the 1990s marked for many the true return of wolves to the West.

We’ve come a long way since then. Decades of work from state and federal agencies, and our own organization as well as countless others, have helped wolves rebound. In that time, we have seen reactions to wolves run the full gamut between loathing and reverence. We’ve seen states’ aggressive attempts to drive wolf numbers down, and privately-run “wolf derbies” designed to kill as many as possible. But we’ve also seen wolves return to habitats where they haven’t set foot in decades. We’ve seen communities learn to adapt to life in wolf country, and formed groundbreaking collaborations with livestock producers that keep wolves on the ground safe.

We’re proud of the work that’s behind us – but also know that this work is never done. We want to see wolves thriving in healthy habitats across North America, fulfilling their crucial role as top predators, maintaining the health of wildland ecosystems, and valued as an iconic species of wildlife. So what’s next?

Wolves of the Rockies – Colorado Here We Come!

yellowstone wolf, © Barrett Hedges/NGS

Gray wolves have returned to most of the northern Rockies. Each state manages wolves their own way, and our experts keep a close eye on implementation of and changes to state management plans and practices so that we can take advantage of every opportunity to advocate for wolves. We’re also promoting coexistence with ranchers in the region – encouraging them to use nonlethal methods of keeping wolves away from livestock and saving the lives of wolves.

The southern Rockies are a different story. This region has some of the best wolf habitat in all the lower 48 states. What it doesn’t have is wolves – a fact we hope to change. Our team in Colorado is working to build support for wolves in the region, teaching residents about the value these animals bring to the landscape, and reaching out to state wildlife officials to develop new policies that would make it safer for wolves to return to the state. We’ll also be working with ranchers to help them understand the nonlethal options they would have to prevent conflict with their livestock, so that they can also be among our allies as wolves begin to return.

Restoring wolves to the southern Rockies would be an incredible achievement. It would mean that wolves – a top predator incredibly valuable to native ecosystems – have been restored along the entire spine of the continent, from the Arctic all the way down to Mexico. That’s the long-term vision for wolves that we hope to achieve. We know it won’t happen quickly, but we’re up to the challenge.

West Coast Wolves – Focus on Coexistence Snake River Pack wolf, © ODFW

In Washington, Oregon and California, wolves are still returning.

Washington (which currently holds about 90 wolves) and Oregon (about 110 wolves), are both in the process of learning how to manage both wolves and livestock on the landscape. We’re glad to be a part of this process, pushing for use of the nonlethal methods of avoiding conflict that we have seen work so well in other states. Happily, this is making a big difference for wolves on the ground. The states’ policies are evolving to better protect wolves, and in Washington in particular, the number of livestock producers using nonlethal tools instead of calling for wolves to be removed has more than tripled over the past few years.

Of course, we were all thrilled last year when California was found to finally have its own wolf pack! Wolves in the Golden State are still protected under the Endangered Species Act, but that could change if the Fish and Wildlife Service moves forward with the national delisting proposal it introduced in 2013. That’s why our California team led the way in lobbying the state to protect gray wolves under the state Endangered Species Act, giving the animals an extra layer of protection if they should need it. With that goal achieved, we’re pushing for a strong, science-based conservation plan from state officials, and laying the groundwork for the same kind of coexistence work we are pursuing throughout the west.

Red Wolves – Holding FWS Accountable Red wolf (captive), © USFWS

This species of native wolf, found today only in a small corner of North Carolina, is in dire straits. Though the red wolf recovery program was once the model for wolf reintroductions across the U.S., the Fish and Wildlife Service has bowed to politics in recent years, all but abandoning the program, and causing the red wolf population to crash from 150 down to fewer than 45 wolves on the ground. Recently, FWS proposed a plan in which they would effectively doom red wolves to extinction in the wild, rounding up most of them up for capture to bring into captivity.

Defenders and several other wolf advocate groups are working hard to make sure this doesn’t happen. Our team on the ground is working to raise awareness and support for the red wolf recovery program in every corner of North Carolina and beyond, reaching out to citizens and landowners as well as decision makers in the state capitol and wildlife agency. We’re calling on everyone who cares about red wolves to tell the FWS to do its job and recover endangered species in the wild, not just in captivity. We’re also pushing for FWS to find more sites for red wolf reintroductions, and will do everything we can to ensure that the howl of the red wolf continues to be heard.

Mexican Gray Wolves – Pushing for More Wolves, Less Politics Mexican gray wolf, © Wolf Conservation Center

On the other side of the country, politics has also taken hold of the Mexican gray wolf, a smaller, more timid subspecies of gray wolf. Regular wolf releases are desperately needed to bolster the still-recovering wild population. But in the last seven years, only four new wolves have been released from captivity. Of these, three are dead and one has been recaptured.

The states of Arizona and New Mexico (in collusion with anti-wolf congressmen) are interfering with Mexican gray wolf recovery, pushing for the effort to fall to the states instead, even though both states have repeatedly given way to anti-wolf special interests. We are fighting back with every tool we have, pushing the Fish and Wildlife Service to continue its recovery efforts for this key species, and even defending the agency’s right to do so in court. At the same time, our team on the ground is gathering support for Mexican gray wolves across the landscape, and working with ranchers and other stakeholders to promote nonlethal tools so that we don’t continue to see these valuable wolves lost because of wolf-livestock conflicts that could have been prevented.

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Categories: Wildlife

12 Responses to “The State of the Wolf”

  1. Tracy

    I will never stop fighting for writing letters, speaking out on there behalf, Defenders of wildlife thank you thank you for all you do them for wolf’s and every creature that needs us to be there voice!!!!

  2. William Lynch

    It would be good to know of the plight of the wolves on Isle Royale in Lake Superior. The rational plan would be to add new and unrelated wolves to replace the inbred few who remain. A pack is needed on the island to keep the deer and moose populations, among others, under control.
    In Michigan we have a politically endangered grey wolf population in the Upper Peninsula and in the northern Lower Peninsula – politically because there is no scientific or rational basis for threats to resume wolf hunting in both locations.

  3. Ernest Pruitt

    I think the most urgent thing for the wolves now is making sure they stay protected and that the ESA doesn’t get basically nullified. There seem to be so many groups trying to decimate them and other predators – they need all the protection thy can get. And positive publicity!!!

  4. Roberta Card-Murdock

    People need to learn the benefits of wolves to habitats when they are allowed to thrive. Landowners need to realize the wolves were here first, and accomodate them, and themselves by learning how to co-exist. Killing of wolves need to be punished, and caring for them needs to be taught in schools. Caring for all wildlife needs to be taught as. required studies in all schools.

  5. Darla Daniel-Seabolt

    Wolves are essential to the environment, and keeps the Herds.of Wildlife Stronger. Keeps diaseses in control, and they have a longer life!

  6. Mike M

    As one who studies wolf cognition, behavior, issues of genetic fitness, and other aspects of that animal, I feel that some important issues remain insufficiently understood.
    Because the ESA and ecological benefits of the species have been the largest thrust of human concern over wolves, the lives of individuals are insufficiently considered.

    We all understand that due to lack of allelic variation in bottlenecked populations and in those having significant founders’ effects, that Mexican and Red Wolves are in rather dire crisis. From this understanding, you may infer that holding populations to extremely small numbers can force that variation downward, and the effect can be increased by what are called catastrophic and/or demographic occurrences, in which any sudden increased loss can remove important variations.
    Think of how in wolves, the young observe elders behaviors and responses. If a particular gene is removed, that allele is gone forever from the population. This is only one reason fror firn adherence to nonlethal approaches to dealing with wolves.

    A related issue is brought up by the author above: habitat connectivity.
    Since the wolf is vagile – able to traverse long distances – connectivity is better defined as safe dispersal corridor.

    Just this week you saw the WA-collared wolf who traveled 700 mi, shot in central MT. This lethal response was again due to poor monitoring of sheep,
    That practice of free-ranging livestock and killing all native predators was the practice that poisoned, shot, trapped wolves and other predators, resulting in the extinction during the 20th century.

    Less than 2 weeks ago, Dick Thiel, a retired WI state biologist came out west to NW CA and SW OR to essentially lobby for lethal management and public hunting and trapping of wolves, an increasingly discredited “management” hypothesis promoted by L. David Mech, also a member of International Wolf Center. When I heard his lecture, I realized that they completely parroted one another, and that the policy/philosophy was like one of the Ely-based organization as well, as it was so verbatim.
    That organization has held to this flawed philosophical idea in the face of 21st century research and data analysis.

    I won’t serve up the numerous references here, but instead will direct you to a nicely comprehensive digest by the Rocky Mt Chapter of the Sierra Club “Vision” for the vitally necessary wolf reoccupation of Colorado, wherein a tiny sample of the discrediting analyses are referenced:

    Mexican Wolves have been reintroduced to the Sierra Madre Orientale south of Monterrey in Nuevo Leon, with an extremely few far west of there, south of AZ/NM. The total in that nation is reported to be about 16, and as you can see on any map, a very thinly dispersed population, thus subject to the same homozygosity problems mentioned above.

    As you know from any biological opinions you’ve read, preventing connectivity, forcing inbreeding, and in essence allowing state management of a species requiring interstate and international safe connection, should be unlawful.

    The USA has Constitutional federal control of interstate and international commerce, and should you look up the use of the word commerce, it includes the meaning of social relations and interchange, as well as sexual relations. These meanings were quite prominent at the time of drafting that document.

    The morphological characteristics of wolves once called Canis lupus mogollonensis, (AZ highlands into southern UT) and monstrabilis (west Texas and into OK), were so similar to baileyi (Mexican Wolf) that it’s clear they were users of the same ecological niche, essentially being that subspecies, with perhaps a few more genes from nubilis, occidentalis, irremotus, the once-purported Northern Rockies wolf.
    A side note: In 1922 a wolf was shot in California’s Providence Mountains in the now-Mojave reserve. That wolf rendered DNA showing that it was essentially baileyi – Mexican Wolf.While there is no evidence of habitat occupation there or in the New York Mts or other SE CA ranges, there appears to have been little exploration of the probability. I dropped by there in the spring, discovering tracks of Bighorn, some deer, and even burro tracks in a couple ranges. In other words, they support large mammals.
    CA like many states manages ungulates to numbers that will not offend public- and private-lands grazing interests. Along with the wolf, natural systems which protect international migratory birds require long connected ecosystems between Canada and Mexico.
    caDFW ungulate management programs are presently being reassessed, and this is vital to wolves and ecosystems.

    Because Mexican wolves are always thinly distributed, and because mountain climates require certain variations and very likely behavioral skills present in northern wolves, a continuous genetic flow is necessary across evolutionary time (which may now be quite shortened by the chaotic weather variation occurring due to anthropogenic climate change).

    My own background includes psychology and convergent disciplines in the animal world.
    I recognize that because the wolf makes only mutual mate choice, and is essentially monogamous (those who are not, are without exception, relative subadult. The wolf attains both physiological and cognitive maturity at age 5. The social structure of this highly cursorial predator (and importantly, carrion-eater. This ecologically valuable job is overlooked by almost all humans; Gordon Haber and others have documented carrion as in some seasons, years, and populations as making up to 855 of their diet) requires those subadults/adolescents for species function because, in this species, they are faster and more agile that true adults.
    FYI, Female sexual size dimorphism is involved in this need for both speed/maneuverability, and weight and strength.

    I hope I’ve given you sooething to fill some gaps. Since I’ve watched wolves and other canids. I’d like to make a few comparisons and contrasts.

    Coyotes in mountains and desert are another highly persecuted species that varies individually in personality, behavior, sociality. The wolf is, like humans, more obligate social in most aspects of life, sharing the same need for solitude at times or seasons – wolf social structure across the year allows and encourages this. As a note on humans, however, our extreme unrelieved saturated overpopulation has caused most of us to become psychologically aberrant, , and combined with comorbidity alcohol – we use little to none of some of our naturally-selected cognitive attributes. What you are seeing in the gun/kill-first society, is a result of aberrance from our initially more complex and adapted nature.

    That is, humans in urban and large agrarian cultures are more limited in the natural observational/sensorial and communicational capacity once more deeply connecting us to personal ecological fit with the other species around us.

    That disjunct has caused not only the sociopathy you observe (as you know, it is not at all exclusively a recent phenomenon), but has made us rather dimwitted and variably but definitely poor observers.
    This disconnection can be found whenever an area culture is reported to have changed from tolerance, reverence, relationship with wolves (the whole issue requires several pages to outline & I won’t do that here beyond mentioning the cultural disjunct itself).
    Thus you understand (even if only in words) our present general incompatibility with any natural ecosystem.

    I reckon it’s up to each of us to fix that in ourselves. We too, are social and environmental learners.

  7. Jim deVos

    As the Assistant Director for Wildlife Management at the Arizona Game and Fish Department, I am familiar with the reintroduction of the Mexican wolf both the American Southwest and Mexico. A few facts to consider. The Department has steadfastly supported reintroduction of the Mexican wolf both in Arizona and Mexico. Releases since 1998 have resulted in 97 wild-born Mexican wolves in the United States when there were none in 1998. This is a success. The Department has contributed more than $7.0 million in recovery efforts for this species. Department staff have expended more than 25,000 hours in field efforts to recover the species in the last several years, not a trivial amount. The Department has spent about $250,000 in research and management of Mexican wolves in Mexico, where 27 Mexican wolves now roam the highlands of northern Mexico. Pups have been born in Mexico for the last three years. Yes, there is more to do, and the Department is there to do more in both countries. As a last note, toward genetic management, it has just been confirmed that three separate fostering events have resulted in pups being successfully placed in the wild and are surviving today. Again, there is more to do but much has been successfully done.

  8. Jim H

    Mike M., The morphometric work you mention on Canis lupus mogollonensis and C. l. monstrabilis actually showed female mogollonensis closer to the northern wolf and the males were closer in size to the smaller Mexican wolf. Canis lupus monstrabilis samples were not numerous enough to make a subspecies call. Based on that Bogan and Mehlhoff (1983) still made the curious recommendation to group those two subspecies with the Mexican wolf despite their own data. Two subsequent morphometric analyses by Nowak (1995) and Hoffmeister (1986) showed those be subspecies should be grouped with the larger northern wolves and not with the Mexican wolf. They may have had some intermediate characteristics, but they sure weren’t pure Mexican wolves.

    Also the wolf specimen from California in 1922 had genetic markers that are also found in Mexican wolves but this does not in anyway mean that wolf was a Mexican wolf. Even those researchers who recently published on it did not say it was. It was in fact a 100 pound large northern wolf. You can find it’s a picture on the Internet. We don’t know enough about the distribution of those markers to call them diagnostic of Mexican wolf ancestery.

    Placing large northern wolves in the southern Rockies would spell the end of the Mexican wolf as the wide ranging northern wolves would soon dominate and genetically swamp the small southwestern lobo we are trying to recover in their historical range. Let’s not advocate for actions that can cause the destruction of the Mexican wolf phenotype before we can recover it.

  9. Alecia

    Thank you for this article, where I live in Australia we don’t have wolves but we have dingoes. Like the wolves, people are afraid of them and think of them as a nuisance to livestock, and try to kill them, but they are peaceful creatures. Dingoes are becoming endangered. Dingoes live all over the continent but these are hybrid dog cross dingoes. Pure dingoes are found in few numbers on Kangaroo Island and are in trouble because there are so few of them. The dog dingoes are also in trouble because of hunting and persecution. The wolves in America may become extinct if people keep mistreating them. I am happy to hear that you are educating farmers to accept them and help save the wolf. They are now returning so people can live at peace with these beautiful creatures. Keep up the good work and bring back the howl of the wolf.

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