A Short History of Wolves in America

The question before us is: should wolves in the United States be taken off the Endangered Species List? To analyze this question, we need to review the history of wolves in America.

The number of wolves living in North America before the arrival of Europeans is estimated at 400,000 animals1. As white Americans and their livestock migrated westward in the 19th century, they came in conflict with wolves. Various states offered bounties for dead wolves, and the U.S. Government waged its own campaign against wolves beginning in 19142. Wolves were gone from western states by the 1930’s and from Wisconsin and Michigan by the mid-1960’s3. By that time, the only wolves remaining in the lower 48 states resided in Minnesota3.

With the rise of the conservation and environmental movements in the U.S. in the 1960’s, attitudes towards the wolf began to change. After passage of the Endangered Species Preservation Act (1966), eastern wolves (Canis lupus lycaon) and red wolves (Canis rufus) were listed as endangered in 19674. With the Endangered Species Act passing in 1973, four subspecies of wolves were granted protection in 1974)3. The entire species of gray wolf was granted protection in 1978, designated as endangered, except in Minnesota where the species was designated as threatened3.

Once they fell under Federal protection, wolves could no longer be killed at whim, and they began to infiltrate into northern United States from Canada5. As far as I can tell, the vast majority of wolves are concentrated in northern states6. While sightings of lone wolves have been reported in many states, a wolf population can not be considered established in a particular area until the presence of at least one pack has been documented. To my knowledge, as of October 2013 there are very few documented packs living in the wild south of 42° latitude, except for red wolves and Mexican gray wolves7.

The vast majority of wolves in the U.S. are concentrated in five regions. These areas are 8 (followed by best estimates of population):

  • Alaska 7,700 to 11,200
  • Western Great Lakes 3,686
  • Northern Rocky Mountains 1,674
  • Southwest (Mexican wolves in the Blue Range Recovery Area) 75
  • North Carolina (Red wolves in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge) 100

In particular, the wolves in the Western Great Lakes region and the wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains region are designated distinct population segments (DPS) by the Fish and Wildlife Service9.

The following map from Defenders of Wildlife shows the range of wolves in the North American continent, past and present10. The map is shaded as follows:

  • Dark greening shading is where gray wolves live currently.
  • Light green shading is where gray wolves have lived in the past.
  • Red shading is where red wolves live currently (North Carolina).
  • Red-spotted shading is where red wolves have lived in the past.
  • Red-striped areas are currently suitable wolf habitat where wolves do not live now but could migrate there.

Here is the map:

Wolf Range North America

Wolves have always lived in Alaska and Canada and were never endangered11. Once protection was afforded to wolves in the lower 48 states (wolves never lived in Hawaii12), they started to cross the northern U.S. border from Canada5. Wolves were never completely eradicated from northern Minnesota13, and as their numbers recovered they gradually spread to Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan14 to found the Western Great Lakes DPS. Below is a map showing their current range in the Western Great Lakes region15:

Western Great Lakes Map 2

Wolves moving into Montana’s National Glacier Park formed the Northern Rocky Mountains DPS. They were joined by wolves that were captured in Canada and released in Yellowstone National Park (31 wolves) and central Idaho (35 wolves) in 1995 and 199616. Here is a map showing wolf packs in the northern Rocky Mountain region17:

Northern Rocky Mountain Map

Notice that this region has actually two centers of population: the area straddling the Idaho-Montana border, and a second area centered on Yellowstone Park. There are packs between these two areas, but they are much less concentrated.

I thought it might be instructive if I also showed maps of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. First, a map of Wyoming. Wyoming has four important areas18:

  • The extreme northwest corner of the state is Yellowstone National Park, where hunting is not allowed.
  • The area surrounding the park (outlined in the map in green) is the Trophy Game Management Area, where wolves can be hunted by licensed hunters during a designated season (October 1 through December 31) up to an area-wide quota.
  • A small area south of the park called the Seasonal Wolf Trophy Game Management Area (outlined in the map in red), where hunting in the area is divided into three periods:
  • January 1 through last day in February. No hunting allowed.
  • March 1 through October 14. Wolves can be killed by anybody at anytime without limit.
  • October 15 through December 31. Hunting by licensed hunters only up to an area-wide quota.
  • The rest of the state, where wolves can be killed by anybody at anytime without limit.

Here is the map. The area bordered in green is the trophy area. The area bordered in red is the seasonal trophy area18:

Wolves in Wyoming

Here is a map of wolves in Montana19, most of which are in the western third of the state:

Wolves in Montana

Here is a map of wolves in Idaho20, whose activity takes up most of the northern two-thirds of the state:

Wolves in Idaho

The Mexican gray wolf (Canis lupus baileyi) was nearly exterminated from its range in the southwestern U.S. by the 1970’s. In 1998, wolves were released into the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area (BRWRA) as a nonessential experimental population21, that is, a population of animals reintroduced into the area whose survival is not essential to the survival of the species as a whole. The nonessential experimental designation relaxes some of the burdens that the Endangered Species Act places on nearby landowners in the hope of reducing opposition to the reintroduction22. The following map shows the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area surrounded by the much larger Mexican Wolf Experimental Population Area23:

Mexican Wolf Recovery Area

Red wolves (Canis rufus) are a separate species with an historical range that included all of the southeast U.S., going as far north as Pennsylvania and the Ohio river valley and as far west as Texas24. Red wolves were extinct from the wild by 1970, except for a small population that was discovered near the Gulf coast straddling the Texas-Louisiana border. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service captured as many animals from this population as it could, and selected 14 individuals for a captive breeding program25. In 1987, descendents of these animals were released into the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge (ARNWR)in eastern North Carolina near the Outer Banks26. Most red wolves in the wild currently reside in or near the ARNWR, as shown in this map from the Fish and Wildlife Service27:

Wolves in NC

In the past few years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has moved to delist wolves from endangered status28. The Northern Rocky Mountain DPS (except in Wyoming) was delisted in May 201129, the Western Great Lakes DPS was delisted in December 201130, and wolves in Wyoming were delisted in August 201229. Mexican wolves in the Blue Range Recovery Area and red wolves remain under protection with no plans to change their status. All other wolves in the contiguous U.S. remain under protection, but in June 2013, the FWS announced its intention to remove this protection31, and it is this announcement which is the source of the controversy we now considering.

In place of Federal protection, the FWS has signed Memoranda of Agreement with Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming32. All these states33 and Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Utah34, Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin35 have state wolf management plans to conserve their wolf populations while minimizing conflicts with humans.

The following map from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shows current endangered species status across the states36:

US Wolf Map

In my next post, I will discuss the delisting of the wolf from Endangered Species List.

Footnotes

  1. Defenders of Wildlife, Places for Wolves: A Blueprint for Restoration and Recovery in the Lower 48 States, 2006, p. 6. To view the document, click here.
  2. International Wolf Center website, Gray Wolf Time Line for the Contiguous United States. To view, click here.
  3. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources website, Canis lupus Gray Wolf. To view, click here.
  4. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website, First Species Listed as Endangered. To view, click here. Note that the scientific name for the red wolf is given as Canis niger rather than Canis rufus.
  5. Mission: Wolf, A History of Wild Wolves in the United States. To view, click here. Montana Fish, Wildlife, & Parks website, Gray Wolf History. To view, click here.
  6. See map below.
  7. I came to this conclusion after examining several states, such as California, that have suitable wolf habitat but no record of resident wolf packs. I am open to correction on this point.
  8. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website, Gray Wolf (Canis lupis) Current Population in the United States. To view, click here.
  9. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website, Species Profile: Gray Wolf (Canis lupis). To view, click here.
  10. Defenders of Wildlife, Places for Wolves: A Blueprint for Restoration and Recovery in the Lower 48 States, 2006, p. 15. To view the document,click here.
  11. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website, Wolf Recovery Under the Endangered Species Act, p. 2. To view, click here.
  12. I came to this conclusion through deduction, although I did find a website page I believe once belonged to the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources but is now obsolete, entitled Are there bears or wolves in Hawaii? To view, click here.
  13. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website, Gray Wolf Recovery in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. To view, click here. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources website, Canis lupus Gray Wolf. To view, click here.
  14. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website, Gray Wolf Recovery in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. To view, click here.
  15. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website, Gray Wolf — Western Great Lakes Distinct Population Segment. To view, click here.
  16. Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks website, Gray Wolf History. To view, click here. There is an excellent video on scientific research of wolves in Yellowstone National Park, entitled NATURE | The Wolf That Changed America | Wolf Expert | PBS which you can view by clicking here.
  17. U.S. Fish and Wildlife website, Gray Wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains: News, Information and Recovery Status Reports. To view, click here.
  18. Wyoming Game & Fish Department website, Wolves in Wyoming. To view, click here.
  19. State of Montana website, Montana Field Guide: Gray Wolf — Canis Lupus. To view, click here.
  20. Idaho Fish and Game Department, 2012 Idaho Wolf Monitoring Progress Report, p. 12. To view, click here.
  21. U.S. Fish and Wildlife website, Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Program History. To view, click here.
  22. U.S. Fish and Wildlife website, Topeka Shiner Reintroduction in Missouri; Designation of Non-Essential, Experimental Population: Questions and Answers. To view, click here. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Endangered Species Act: Experimental Populations. To view, click here.
  23. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website, Mexican Wolf Experimental Population Area (map showing 10(j) boundary). To view, click here.
  24. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Endangered Red Wolves, p. 3. To view, click here. It is interesting that FWS shows a map of the red wolf’s historical range that plots it as far north as Massachusetts, southern New York, most of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana, and half of Illinois and Missouri. Click here to view. Indeed, a serious claim that red wolves inhabited the Adirondacks area in Northern New York State was made in an Adirondack Citizen Advisory Committee report on the possible reintroduction of wolves into Adirondack Park, as reported on the Defenders of Wildlife website, Wolves in the Adirondacks?, which you can view by clicking here.
  25. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Endangered Red Wolves, p. 1. To view, click here.
  26. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Endangered Red Wolves, pp. 2, 6–7 To view, click here. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website, Recovery Timeline. To view, click here.
  27. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website, Red Wolf Recovery Efforts. To view, click here. There is a fascinating discussion in Wikipedia on the controversy whether the red wolf is a true species or is merely a hybrid of gray wolves and coyotes, which you can view by clicking here and scrolling down to the section “Taxonomy.”
  28. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website, Species Profile: Gray Wolf (Canis lupis), section “Current Listing Status Summary” and further to the end of the page. To view, click here.
  29. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website, Gray Wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains: News, Information, and Recovery Status Reports, section “Recent Actions:”. To view, click here.
  30. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website,Gray Wolves in the Western Great Lakes States, section “Chronology of Federal Actions Affecting Gray Wolf ESA Status in the Western Great Lakes States.” To view, click here.
  31. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website,Gray Wolves in the Western Great Lakes States, section “June 7, 2013 Announcement.” To view,click here. There is no indication anywhere on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website that the red wolf is proposed for delisting.
  32. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website, Gray Wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains: News, Information, and Recovery Status Reports, section “Wolf Management Memorandums of Agreement”. To view, click here.
  33. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website, Gray Wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains: News, Information, and Recovery Status Reports, section “State Wolf Management in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming”. To view, click here.
  34. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website, Gray Wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains: News, Information, and Recovery Status Reports, section “Other State and Tribal Wolf Management”. To view, click here.
  35. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website,Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan State Management Plans. To view, click here.
  36. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website, Gray Wolf – Western Great Lakes Region: Status under the Endangered Species Act. To view, click here.

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