Now off the Endangered Species List, gray wolves are once again being hunted in several states. Are these beautiful creatures thriving, or threatened?
Powerful, beautiful, intelligent, and a ferociously adept hunter, 832F or 06 (the year of her birth) as she was more commonly known, became a flashpoint for the plight of gray wolves when she was legally shot and killed outside the boundary of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming in 2012 during a sanctioned wolf hunt. The alpha female of the visible Lamar Canyon Pack, 06 was able to take down an adult elk by herself and was also respected as a skilled mother, raising three litters of pups. A park visitor favorite, her untimely death was covered nationally and brought wolf recovery efforts to the nation’s attention. For his part, the hunter who killed her felt justified taking out one of the animals he deemed responsible for the reduction of elk to hunt, his preferred game. Then in 2018, one of 06’s offspring, 926, a striking alpha female wolf nicknamed Spitfire, met a similar fate outside the park’s northeast entrance. Both wolves, and many before and since, have found themselves caught in the crossfire between those committed to restoring the animals to their former landscapes and those fighting to retain a way of life they believe is being negatively impacted by wolves.
At one time there were an estimated two million gray wolves (Canis lupus) roaming the United States. By the 1960s, the population had dwindled to near extinction due to hunting, poisoning and trapping. Today, due to reintroduction programs, natural migrations, and legal protections, their numbers have increased. However, gray wolves still occupy only 10 percent of their former range, and their presence often brings controversy. Conservationists, ecologists, and Native Americans support their return, while many ranchers, concerned about their livestock, oppose it. And then there are hunters eager to play a part.
In 1974, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed gray wolves as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (except in Alaska, where wolf numbers are stable). This meant the federal government, rather than individual states, was in charge of gray wolf recovery, and wolf population nationwide increased to around 6,000 today. In October of 2020, in response to increasing numbers, gray wolves were removed from the Endangered Species list, allowing individual states to manage local wolf populations. Authorities considered the gray wolf’s comeback a success. Conservationists, on the other hand, viewed the delisting as premature. One group was spared: due to their small numbers, Mexican gray wolves — a genetically distinct subspecies in Arizona and New Mexico — remain federally protected.
Are there more gray wolves today than there were before they were put on the Endangered Species list? Yes. Are the current population numbers sufficient to support viable, healthy wolf populations? Some say yes, some say no. Has the recovery of the gray wolf in the lower 48 been accomplished? The answer, as they say, is complicated.
TROPHIC CASCADE IN THE ROCKIES
Nowhere have the benefits of the reintroduction of wolves as apex predators played out more spectacularly than at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. Scientists and visitors to the park are witnessing a trophic cascade of beneficial ecological changes begun in 1995 with the federal reintroduction of gray wolves. Simply stated, the wolves have helped reduce elk numbers as well as change elk grazing behavior. Nervous herds are pushed to keep moving, thus decreasing overly intense foraging of vegetation such as aspen and willow, particularly along river bottoms. The rebound of the willows helped the beavers. The beaver dams affect stream hydrology, which benefits fish and songbirds. In addition, pronghorn antelope and foxes benefit from the wolves’ control of coyote populations. “Prey densities, such as elk, are six times higher where there are not wolves,” says Dr. Shannon Barber-Meyer, a USGS Research Wildlife Biologist, who has studied wolves extensively. “And wolves kill inferior prey,” she adds.
Wolves also are good for the economy — many people visit Yellowstone specifically to get a glimpse of these enigmatic creatures. Still, recovery efforts in the surrounding states continue to run into pushback. Although there are a small number of wolves in Wyoming — where once there were tens of thousands — wolf hunts are allowed due to the figure of 300 or so, which U.S. Fish and Wildlife considers to be a recovery.
The same year wolves were released in Yellowstone, 15 gray wolves were reintroduced to central Idaho with an additional 20 the following year. The population slowly grew and has been holding steady at about 1,500 for the past two years. But in April 2021, the legislature — bowing to pressure from the cattle industry — decided to allow a 90 percent reduction through hunting and trapping, reducing that population to 150. The new legislation allows limitless wolf kills by a single hunter and hunting from ATVs and snowmobiles. Amaroq Weiss, a Senior West Coast Wolf Advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, is appalled. “There is no justifiable reason to hunt them,” she says. “Wolves have the ability to selfregulate their own populations based on food availability and territorial disputes,” she observes. Weiss says conflict can be dealt with in a number of non-lethal ways. Ranchers can use fladry — a line of brightly colored flags hung along a pasture’s perimeter, which wolves don’t like. They can introduce electric fencing, or fox lights that flash on and off randomly to mimic a person with a flashlight. “Most state agencies have proactive tools and will work with livestock owners to use and implement them. What it takes is a willing rancher,” she says.
In Montana, gray wolves, also known as timber wolves, were largely eradicated by the turn of the last century. Without formal reintroduction, wolves have repopulated the area, migrating down from Canada and expanding out from Yellowstone. Statewide, their presence has been met with opposition from hunters, who view them as competitors for big game, and ranchers who fear for their livestock. Montana joins other states, such as Idaho, in the passage of new legislation that permits hunting at night with lights and night vision scopes, as well as use of bait in traps. Like Idaho, Montana has removed limits on the number of wolf kills by an individual hunter.
In contrast, Colorado will soon join the reintroduction effort for the first time, and recently passed a measure mandating that Colorado Parks and Wildlife create a plan for the restoration and management of the gray wolf by the end of 2023. Their hope is that by early involvement of stakeholders, they can avoid some of the problems other reintroduction programs have wrought.
THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST REGION
The repopulation of gray wolves into Oregon and Washington has occurred naturally in the past decade, as populations from Canada and Idaho dispersed and took up residence. Today there are around 145 living in Washington and about 173 in Oregon. The hope is that the expansion will continue, toward the Cascade Range of western Washington and Oregon. Despite strides, wolf poaching in Oregon remains a problem. And what happens to the pack when a wolf is killed through poaching or hunting? A wolf pack is kin based, and according to Dr. Barber-Meyer, “It depends on the status of the wolf that was killed. Was it a pup? A breeder? A helper? And the timing of the kill and how many are left in the pack also is important. If it’s a young wolf, maybe the pack isn’t all that affected. If it’s a breeder it can be a bigger deal.” She goes on to say that, “It comes down to specifics. At the population level, a certain number of harvests won’t affect the numbers.”
In 2011, a wolf named Journey traveled from Oregon into California, the first wolf seen in the Golden State since 1924. His foray made the current Lassen Pack possible, though it is believed, based on the state’s research, to only number six wolves. California does have one of the most robust state endangered species act, which only allows for the killing of a wolf in the defense of human life.
WESTERN GREAT LAKES REGION
Having always hosted a viable wolf population, Minnesota enjoys the distinction of being second only to Alaska in number of wolves inhabiting the state. Population estimates for the last 20 years have exceeded 2,000. Minnesota has held wolf hunts off and on over the years, and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is currently rewriting its wolf management plan. There are opposing bills in front of lawmakers, one that would require a hunt and one that would ban it. With the original wolf population goal of 1,600 met and exceeded, Minnesota hasn’t yet decided whether to bring back a hunt. The plan is expected to be ready by the summer.
Native to Michigan and once present throughout the state, gray wolves were virtually wiped out by the 1960s. In 1965 they were granted full legal protection by the state legislature. And when the federal government listed the gray wolf as endangered, the recovery could begin in earnest. By then, only six animals remained, along with a geographically isolated population in Isle Royale. However, after attempts at human interventions in the ’70s, the Department of Natural Resources made the decision to let the wolf recovery play out unassisted. Wolves have emigrated from Minnesota, Canada and Wisconsin, and by the early 1990s there were around 20 animals. Today, there are close to 700 wolves living in Michigan, where public support has contributed to their success. In a Catch-22, their success means they are once again targets, with two state senators pushing to reinstitute wolf hunts this year as a means to maintain stable numbers and limit wolf-livestock conflicts. The Department of Natural Resources is in the process of updating its wolf management plan by June 2022, and prefers to delay a hunt until that time. For the senators, there’s no time like the present.
Recent news in Wisconsin highlights the potential peril in local wolf management. Earlier this year, Wisconsin hunters killed 218 wolves in 60 hours, aided by dogs, cable restraints, and leg-hold traps, far exceeding the intended quota of 119. Forced by a lawsuit brought by a hunting advocacy group, Hunters Nation, the Department of Natural Resources held the hunt without input from the Chippewa Indians, per treaty agreements. Furthermore, the hunt took place during an ill-timed cycle. Wolves get pregnant one time per year — in February — when the hunt was held, making it likely that some of the wolves killed were pregnant females. Additionally, others killed were breeding males, necessitating that their mates raise any pups born later on their own.
Prior to the hunt, population estimates hovered around 1,000. In the face of public outrage, Hunter Nation claimed to be “proud of the effort we undertook that allowed the statutorily required wolf hunt to move forward….” per their website. The Chippewa Indians voiced their concerns, as they consider the wolf sacred. Tribes are given their own wolf kill quota, but often use their allotment to protect wolves.
CLOSE TO HOME: ARIZONA AND NEW MEXICO
The Mexican wolf (Canis lupus baileyi) — a smaller, genetically distinct subspecies of gray wolf — is native to southeastern Arizona and southern New Mexico, as well as northern Mexico. And although gray wolves in the lower 48 states were removed from the Endangered Species List last year, the 186 Mexican gray wolves in Arizona and New Mexico retained their status.
Aggressively hunted, poisoned, and trapped, Mexican gray wolves had all but disappeared by the 1950s. Their story folds into a larger narrative found throughout the West that pits ranchers, with the assistance of agents of the federal government, against environmentalists. Wolf reintroduction has been a bitter pill for small percentage of people in the West whose livelihoods depend primarily on cattle and sheep. Federal officials, for decades taking part in the wolf slaughter and now in charge of wolf management, find themselves in a bind: conservationists think they are limiting the animal’s recovery. And ranchers think the government is interfering too much. “People are passionate about wolves, and it’s either one extreme or the other. There is no in between,” says Dr. Brady McGee, Mexican Wolf Recovery Coordinator for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Albuquerque, New Mexico, who oversees the recovery effort in Arizona, New Mexico, and into Mexico.
In 1976, a federal effort was launched to save the Mexican wolf from extinction, beginning with an endangered designation. Three of the remaining Mexican gray wolves were captured to be part of a breeding program; four others that became part of the program had been captured in previous years. In 1998, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, along with the Arizona Game and Fish Department, New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, USDA-APHIS Wildlife Services, and USDA-Forest Service released 11 captive-reared Mexican wolves into the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area in eastern Arizona. The White Mountain Apache Tribe joined the effort in 2002, with the first release of wolves onto the Fort Apache Indian Reservation the following year. A group was released in Mexico in 2011.
With such a small number of wolves constituting the genetic range of the current population, inbreeding is a serious concern. There doesn’t appear to be enough genetic diversity to sustain survival for the species. One way the recovery program is addressing that issue is by the use of cross-fostering, where captive-born pups are slipped into dens with wild ones when quite young. “Managing for genetic diversity isn’t usually a problem because wolves naturally disperse. However, with the small founding number of Mexican gray wolves, everything exists on a finer scale. Every wolf matters that much more. A disease could be catastrophic,” says Dr. Barber-Meyer.
According to the recovery plan finalized in 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife goal is an average of 320 Mexican wolves in the U.S. over an eight-year period and a second population in Mexico of about 200. “We are at about 186 wolves in Arizona and New Mexico per an end of 2020 count,” says McGee. Arizona is home to 72, New Mexico, 114. Mexico’s population currently numbers about 30. Once the animals reach their target recovery numbers, wolves could be delisted and management would revert back to the individual states. It’s possible that wolf hunts would be allowed at that point. Conservationists, however, dispute that, observing that any delisting would have to be based on the best available science, which unfortunately predicts the extinction of Mexican gray wolves beyond the 100- year mark due to the small numbers and lack of genetic diversity.
Elk, mule deer, and white-tailed deer are among known prey for Mexican wolves, but they can and do prey on livestock at times. Megan Richardson, a ranch owner in New Mexico’s Catron County, even posting billboards to their cause, has zero use for reintroduced wolves. “I have a problem with the fact that they are releasing wolves who were raised in cages and don’t know how to hunt,” she says. She comments that they lost 15 calves and cows in four days last year. “And we don’t get reimbursed for predations,” she adds.
McGee observes that there actually are a number of programs ranchers can apply to for reimbursement of lost cattle, at fair market value. “We are trying to balance recovery while reducing livestock conflicts, he says. But, “There’s not a rancher out there who likes wolves,” he adds. There are, however, a number of ranchers who are willing to cooperate with the efforts to reduce conflict.
Good news for some — the population of Mexican gray wolves in the wild has increased for the fifth consecutive year in 2021, albeit slowly. In 2019 the population grew 24 percent, last year it was 14 percent. And although poaching is a problem in the region it doesn’t appear to be impacting population numbers. As recently as February of this year, Arizona Game and Fish was investigating the suspicious death of a Mexican wolf in Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest near Eagar, Arizona, offering a substantial cash reward for information about the crime.