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Conserving the Nature of America

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people.

History of Decline, Protection and Recovery


Gray wolf in forest.

Photo by Scott Flaherty; USFWS


Historically, intensive eradication efforts and declining numbers of prey (bison, elk, and white-tailed deer in the south; moose, deer, caribou, and beaver in the north) caused wolf declines in the western Great Lakes area. Bounties paid for dead wolves began during the 1800s. By 1838, wolves were eliminated from the southern portion of Michigan, by the early 1900s they were eliminated from southern Minnesota and Wisconsin, and  by 1960, wolves were also gone from northern Wisconsin and Michigan (except Isle Royale), and from most of Minnesota.


Wisconsin protected the wolf in 1957, after the species was extirpated. Michigan followed suit in 1965, giving the gray wolf endangered species protection. At that time only a few lone wolves remained in the Upper Peninsula, and an isolated population existed on Isle Royale. 


In Minnesota, a bounty on all predators, including wolves, continued until 1965. Between 1965 and 1974, Minnesota had an open season on wolves and a Directed Predator Control Program.  During this time, about 250 wolves were taken each year and the wolf population was estimated at 350 to 700 animals. The state’s control program and open season continued until May 1974 when the gray wolf gained protection under the Endangered Species Act.



Current Status of the Gray Wolf under the Endangered Species Act


Status in Minnesota: Threatened

Status in upper Midwest states, except Minnesota : Endangered


Numbers of gray wolves in western Great Lakes states from 1976 to present


Difference between threatened and endangered status under the ESA




Perhaps the most important factors leading to wolf recovery in the Midwest were the ESA’s prohibitions that made killing and harming wolves illegal and the ESA requirement that a Recovery Plan be prepared. The Recovery Plan focused time, money, and energy on priority conservation actions. Wolves also rebounded because their primary prey, white-tailed deer, were doing well. Deer herds in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan increased through the 1980s and early 1990s because of mild winters and timber harvests that created prime habitat.




  • Eastern Timber Wolf Recovery Plan Adobe PDF Icon 74 pages; 4.79MB (1992)
    The Endangered Species Act requires the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to prepare Recovery Plans for listed species. Prepared by a team of biologists and wolf experts, the recovery plan identifies and prioritizes steps needed to increase numbers of wolves and expand their range beyond northeastern Minnesota.




  • State Wolf Management Plans Plans prepared by Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan to guide wolf management after the wolf is removed from the federal list of threatened and endangered species.



Timeline of Federal Actions Affecting Gray Wolf ESA Status in the Upper Midwest

Chronological list of previous federal actions that have affected the Endangered Species Act status of the gray wolf in the Midwest from the Endangered Species Conservation Act of 1966 to present.


Timeline of Federal Actions »



Gray Wolves in the Western Great Lakes States