Wolf Recovery in North America
Before the arrival of European settlers, wolves ranged widely across the continent, from coast to coast and from Canada to Mexico. Two species are found in North America, the gray wolf, with its various subspecies, and the red wolf, found in the southeastern United States.
Wolves play an important role as predators in the ecosystems they inhabit. They feed primarily on large mammals, such as deer and elk, removing sick and injured animals from the populations. Wolves are highly social, living in packs and hunting and raising young cooperatively.
As the country was settled, native prey species declined and the number of domestic animals increased. As wolves increasingly turned to livestock for prey, government agencies and private citizens undertook large-scale predator control programs, with wolves hunted nearly to extinction.
By the middle of the 20th century, few wolves existed in the lower 48 States. Only several hundred gray wolves in Minnesota and an isolated population on Michigan’s Isle Royale remained, along with an occasional Mexican wolf— and reports of a few red wolves.
Thanks to recovery programs and to the natural migration from Canada into Montana, more than 5000 gray wolves now live in the lower 48 States. Under the Endangered Species Act gray wolf populations in the northern Rocky Mountains are listed either as endangered or as “nonessential, experimental.” Mexican gray wolves are also “nonessential, experimental,” a designation that provides management flexibility.
Partners such as State wildlife agencies, universities, and conservation organizations have developed recovery plans in various parts of the country, with the goal of restoring the species to a secure status in the wild as a functioning member of its ecosystem. Recovery enables the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service to “delist” species so that they are no longer endangered or threatened—and to return their management to States and Tribes.
Recovery plans identify the population levels and distribution necessary for a species to be considered recovered. When a species reaches recovery criteria, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reviews the population status to determine whether reclassification or delisting is appropriate. Recovery criteria differ among populations depending on the threats to the species, the connectivity of the populations, and local ecological circumstances.
At the time of its listing under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the gray wolf in the eastern part of the United States had been eliminated from the landscape, except in northern Minnesota and on Isle Royale, Michigan. Protection under the Act has allowed the Minnesota population to grow, and now about 2,922 wolves live there. In addition, wolves returned to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Wisconsin. About 1,069 animals live there.
Because these States achieved recovery goals outlined in the Eastern Timber Wolf Recovery Plan, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service has removed the western Great Lakes population of gray wolves from the protection of the Endangered Species Act. States and Tribes now manage wolves in the region.
Wolves in the Rocky Mountains
Recovery partners released wolves as family groups in Yellowstone and individually in central Idaho. The program has been extremely successful. Wolves in both areas have formed packs and reproduced. Now Montana is home to about 497 wolves. About 846 wolves live in Idaho, and about 302 in Wyoming.
The reintroduction program has been so successful that the wolf population in the northern Rocky Mountains has exceeded recovery goals every year since 2002. Also, the states of Montana and Idaho have made commitments to maintain wolf populations well above minimum recovery levels. Therefore, the Service identified a northern Rocky Mountain wolf Distinct Population Segment that includes all of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, the eastern third of Washington and Oregon, and a small corner of north-central Utah. This wolf population was removed from the protection of the Endangered Species Act, except in Wyoming.
Mexican Gray Wolves
Mexican wolves were listed as endangered in 1976, and a joint recovery effort with Mexico began. Using animals captured in Mexico in 1977, recovery partners established a captive breeding population. These animals are the foundation of the recovery effort. Wolves that are candidates for reintroduction undergo a “pre-acclimation” period at Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico and other remote facilities. This practice helps foster behavior and characteristics that enhance their ability to survive in the wild.
In 1998, the Fish and Wildlife Service released 13 captive-reared Mexican wolves in eastern Arizona. Two years later, the first Mexican wolf pup was conceived and born in the wild! Additional releases from progeny of the 300 wolves in captivity are planned to reach the goal of a wild population of 100 animals.
Wolves in Alaska and Canada
Captive breeding efforts are proving to be successful. Reintroduction is continuing at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina. Red wolves have returned to the wild.
In northeastern North Carolina about 100 red wolves comprise 20 packs the wild. Captive breeding efforts at nearly 40 facilities throughout the United States have about 170 wolves. The captive rearing program is vital to maximizing the genetic diversity of the species and provides animals for occasional release into the wild. Recovery goals are 550 red wolves, including at least 220 in the wild.
For more information about the status of wolves, contact one of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offices listed below or the Service’s homepage at www.fws.gov.
Revised July 2009