THE STORY OF WOLVES IN AMERICA

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Endangered Earthlings Inc.

​​​​The History of Wolf Eradication in the United States


The gray wolf was once the most widely ranging land mammal on the planet.  The wolf occupied almost the entire Northern Hemisphere. Today, gray wolves have been pushed to the extreme northern limits of the hemisphere. When European settlers arrived in America, there was an estimated two million wolves ranging from the arctic to Northern Mexico.  In the western US and Mexico alone, there were an estimated 380,000 wolves. As settlers cleared the land for their grain and livestock, they also cleared away the native play species (vast herds of deer, elk and bison) and then they cleared the land of the magnificent predators (wolves, grizzlies, cougars – especially wolves). Over a 300 year period wolves were relentlessly persecuted using unspeakable brutal means – trapping, shooting, poisoning, and even burning pups alive in their dens.  The cruelty we inflicted on wolves knew no bounds.

In the west, the inadequacy of individual wolf killing along with the failure of state and local bounties to eradicate wolves led the US Congress to appropriate $125,000, beginning in 1915 ($3,115,247.52 in today’s money) and every year thereafter in increasing amounts, to pay the salaries of wolf hunters known as “wolfers”. Their primary job was to kill every wolf in their assigned district as well as other predators on behalf of the livestock industry. They used poisons and traps and by the mid-1920s the federal government had reduced wolves to a rarity in western states. Next, they turned their sights on coyotes to support for a killing program. However, killing predators benefited few people then as it does now.

A few wolves did survive in remote regions past the 1920s. The last wolf likely born in the western US was trapped by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) in 1945 in Southern Colorado in the South San Juan Mountains. So, by the end of the 1940s, the gray wolf had been largely exterminated from the lower 48. By 1973 when the Federal Endangered Species Act was passed, the only place wolves could be found at all was far north eastern Minnesota. Wolves were exterminated because of certain values and extermination campaigns based on those values (beef and dairy producers). Those values still exist today and remain a strong political force. 

In the 1960s and 1970s, a very different set of societal attitudes and values led to shifts in our cultural and political attitudes. This refocusing of priorities lead to the enactment of  several key environmental laws – the clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, National Environmental Policy Act, and (most importantly for the wolf) the Endangered Species Act.  And remarkably, these laws were passed under a Republican administration in a bipartisan Congress. The Endangered Species Act was passed by a unanimous vote in the House and a near unanimous vote in the Senate.

Limited Wolf Recovery Efforts that Have Taken Place by the Federal Government

Most people don’t know the Endangered Species Act is designed to not only protect the lives of endangered animals but also their habitats. This is especially important for wolves because, as we all know, wolves keep ecosystems healthy. So protecting them also serves to protect the ecosystem at the same time. Wolves are a classic example of how saving a species fulfills both purposes of the Endangered Species Act (animal and ecosystem).

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) was passed in 1973 and the gray wolf was listed under the act in 1974 as four separate sub-species. But after recognizing that those designations may not be valid, in 1978 the US Fish and Wildlife Service re-designated protection for the gray wolf at the single species level - Canis Lupus – across the lower 48 states. Minnesota population of wolves, because they still existed, was listed as “threatened” and wolves were listed as “endangered” across the rest of the lower 48.

Under the ESA, the term “endangered” is defined as “a species which is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range” while “threatened” is defined as “any species which is likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range”.

In addition, the ESA allows the Service to consider a population as a Distinct Population Segment, or DPS, if it is threatened or endangered, and it is a “discrete” and “significant” population. For example, if a family of wolves lives along the west coast, away from other wolves so there is no cross breeding or genetic transfer, that small population may be considered “discrete” under the law. Let’s also say this family of wolves maintains a unique diet by only eating fish. This may make this population “significant” as well. If both of these conditions are met, “discrete” and “significant”, then the Service can draw a line around their immediate ecosystem and identify them as a DPS.

If a species is identified and listed under the Endangered Species Act, that protection comes with several benefits.   First, for any species listed as “endangered”, Section 9 of the Act makes it unlawful for anyone to “take” any such species within the United States. “Take” is defined as “to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct.” For a species that are listed as “threatened”, the Service may but is not required to apply this definition of “take”.

The second major benefit of being ESA listed means the Service must develop a recovery plan for all “endangered” or “threatened” species. It took 20 years of political battles (1973 – 1993) until on the ground wolf recovery began and that recovery has only taken place in a few limited parts of the county.

Despite the nationwide listing of the species level, the Service didn’t develop a nationwide recovery plan. Instead, the Service developed separate plans for just three areas - the Northern Rocky Mountains, the Western Great Lakes, and the Southwest. In the Northern Rockies, wolves began to come over from Canada in the 1980s but got no farther. In 1995 and 1996, wolves were captured in British Columbia and Alberta and were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in central Idaho. Together, these three populations now number about 1,600 animals. Wolves have also begun to recolonize nearby areas of Washington, Oregon, and California. 

Wolves didn’t need to be reintroduced in the Western Great Lakes region since they were already there (600 to 1,000 still living in Northern Minnesota). The Service allowed these wolves to expand their range into Wisconsin and parts of Michigan. Today there are around 4,300 wolves in the Great Lakes states and an estimated 6,000 animals in the three recovery areas in the lower 48. This is one percent of their former numbers occupying less than 10% of the species’ former range.

The third recovery, the Southwest, is for the Mexican gray wolf.  These wolves face many dangers to their survival but the greatest is a genetic danger. Their population was reduced to just 7 animals because of persecution. They were captured decades ago, bred, and reintroduced into the Southwest.  In 1976, the Mexican gray wolf was placed on the Endangered Species list. Between 1977 and 1980, 5 wolves were captured in Mexico (4 males and 1 older female). All current Mexican gray wolves are descendants of the last captured female wolf and one other wolf family. This results in a very narrow lineage (genetic base).  In 2018, there were only 118 wolves in the wild.

But the story of wolves continues as the EPA evolves.

With the “threatened” status of wolves in the Western Great Lakes region, the “take prohibition” the Service chose not to apply it. They created special rules under the Endangered Species Act Section 4D (called Section 4D Rules) to determine under what circumstances a threatened population of animals can be killed. That is what they did for the state of Minnesota.

In the other two areas, the Northern Rockies and the Southwest recovery area for the Mexican Gray Wolf where wolves are “endangered”, the wolves restored there were released under a special provision of the Endangered Species Act called Section 10J. This section did not exist in the original law. When talks began about potentially reintroducing predators such as wolves or grizzly bears, there was so much pushback about introducing species that could not be killed under certain circumstances that The Endangered Species Act was amended in 1982 to add Section 10J to create what was deemed as experimental, non-essential populations. Those populations are treated as if they are “threatened”, not as “endangered” as they should be treated. This opens the door to use Section 4D rules to exist allowing the killing of these animals under certain circumstances.

So the populations reintroduced into the Northern Rockies and the Southwest were experimental, non-essential populations. The reason that the wolves cannot be killed in Yellowstone is because they reside in a National Park and animals cannot be hunted in National Parks.  The wolves introduced to Idaho are placed in a wilderness area and not in a National Park. As a 10J experimental, non-essential population, these wolves can be killed for such things as conflicts with livestock, etc.

Recovery Challenges and Issues with the Red Wolf

It is important to note that separately, the Service has created a recovery plan to restore the red wolf in the Southeast United States. The red wolf, or Canis Rufus, is smaller than the gray wolf but larger than the coyote. They have more of a lanky appearance than the gray wolf with longer and thinner legs and thinner fur that has a reddish tinge to it. They mate for life and live in familial pack of 5-8 individuals formed around a breeding pair and their offspring. Red wolves originally roamed the entire eastern seaboard all the way to the Texas gulf coast and north to the lower Midwest. The red wolf was declared endangered in the 1960 and was declared extinct in the wild by 1980.

In 1987, 4 pairs of wolves were released into the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina. This population has since grown across 5 counties (1.7 million acres). This reintroduction program is considered one of the world’s most innovative and successful efforts to restore a critically endangered carnivore species. The population peaked in 2006 at about 130 individuals but quickly began to decline after that with a total population crash by 2014. By 2018 only 24 known red wolves remained in the wild and the Service estimated the population could go extinct by 2026. Rampant poaching, Fish and Wildlife program mismanagement, and unchecked hybridization with coyotes are the primary threats to this species.

There are four main reasons to the mismanagement of the recovery program causing this extremely endangered path:

  1. Fish and Wildlife Service rollback of reintroduction efforts
  2. Fish and Wildlife Service rollback of coyote sterilization in the recovery area
  3. Fish and Wildlife Service rollback of education programs designed to build support
  4. A general lack of prosecutions against poachers


But science says red wolves are still recoverable. In a 2014 report by the nonpartisan Wildlife Management Institute concluded that recovery would require augmenting Eastern North Carolina existing wild population with 2 additional wild populations an investing additional resources to build local support for red wolf recovery.  However, a 2018 Fish and Wildlife Service proposal would reduce the recovery area by more than 90% leaving support needs for only 10-15 wolves. This proposal would eliminate protections for any wolves who may wonder off of their recovery area.  The good news is that public response to this administration’s policies has been overwhelmingly opposed. 107, 988 comments (99.9 of all comments) call for strong protections and recovery of the red wolf. 

Premature Efforts to Strip Wolves of Protections and the Necessary Court Battles

The US Fish and Wildlife Service has attempted multiple times since the early 2000s to strip protections from wolves.  Each time when it was possible to challenge those delistings in court, the Center for Biological Diversity and allies sued and won in all cases except one. When Congress delisted a portion of the wolf population, that action could not be challenged in court because of the way Congress wrote the law. They specifically said it could not be appealed.

The main rulings coming out of the courts when they have overturned the delistings have hinged on three key concepts. First, wolves have not yet been recovered because they are in fact still endangered and are absent from significant portions of their range. Second that state management plans are not adequately protective enough to protect wolves from being endangered or threatened again. Third, the Service didn’t sufficiently consider if removing protections in one area could prevent wolves from establishing populations elsewhere in a former range. 

Here is a chronological listing of how many times the Fish and Wildlife Service attempted delisting wolves in last 15 years. Their first attempts came in 2003 with the down listing of wolves across the Great Lakes region to threatened, reducing protections for wolves in the Northern Rockies, and only leaving endangered protections in the Southwest. The Center for Biological Diversity and allies sued and in 2005 the court overturned these imposed restrictions.

In 2007, the Fish and Wildlife Service issued a ruling delisting the entire DPS area of the Western Great lakes wolves. Again, the Center for Biological Diversity and allies sued and in 2008 the court overturned these imposed restrictions.

In 2008, the Service announced the delisting of a DPS that included the Northern Rockies – Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and portions of Washington, Oregon, and Utah.  The Center for Biological Diversity and allies sued and this time the Service withdrew their ruling before a court could even rule on it.

In 2009, the Fish & Wildlife Service issued a final order delisting wolves in the Northern Rockies and parts of Washington, Oregon and Utah with the exception of Wyoming. Again, the Center for Biological Diversity and allies sued and in 2009 the court reinstated protections in the Western Great Lakes and the parties were working to reach a settlement on the Northern Rockies.

In 2011, Congress delisted wolves in the Northern Rockies (not including Wyoming) and they made it not appealable so it could not be challenged in court. In the same year, Fish and Wildlife Service issued another rule delisting the Western Great Lakes which went into effect in early 2012. Another lawsuit was filed and in 2014 a court overturned this delisting effort.

In 2012, the Service delisted Wyoming. The Center for Biological Diversity and allies sued and in 2008 the court overturned these imposed restrictions. In 2014, a court restored protections there. Unfortunately, this case went up on appeal and the appellate court sided with the Service. Wolves were delisted in Wyoming.

Both the Fish and Wildlife Service and Congress have made ruling every year to sponsor delisting of wolves. Stripping protections for wolves is a number one priority for the current government and its agencies. We can’t ever let our guard down because another attempted delisting is imminent.

On June 2018, News Week and Associate Press issued stories on Fish and Wildlife Service plans to delist wolves. The Center for Biological Diversity issued its own press release (on website at Biological Diversity in the News Room). 

And finally, in conclusion, the huge investment in the value of livestock by this country has led to the near eradication of natural predators. But here is the reality. Livestock loses to wolves are estimated at 0.02% of stock that die unnaturally. This data is reported by ranchers to the National Agriculture Statistical Service. Those reports show that around 95% of livestock losses not due to any predator of any kind. Most losses are due to disease, dehydration, starvation, respiratory infection, birthing complications, bad weather, ingestion of poisonous weeds, and other causes. From the very small amount of cattle lost to predators, wolves are at the bottom of the list. Domestic dogs cause far more losses than do wolves.

Science concludes that killing wolves is the wrong approach to resolving issues with livestock.  There have been no “gold standard” studies but the (140 worldwide) studies that have been conducted show:

  • Killing wolves can increase conflicts or cause the wolves to just move next door to a neighboring ranch
  • The only methods scientifically shown to deter conflicts are non-lethal
  • Non-lethal methods are more effective and less costly
  • Killing wolves reduces social tolerance and increases illegal wolf killings
  • Fencing, guard dogs, and red flags hung on fence lines are all very effective
  • And finally, the social structure of wolf packs is disrupted using lethal conflict remediation.Type your paragraph here.