Wolves in the Lower 48: From Persecuted to Protected

The return of wolves to the contiguous United States is one of the most notable success stories of wildlife conservation.

Once the most widespread carnivore on Earth, wolves were eradicated for centuries across Europe, and early immigrants to North America brought with them their cultural prejudice and fear of the species. Since that time, this important keystone species—an animal vital to the structure and integrity of its ecological community—has been both targeted for extermination and revered as a symbol of wilderness. Despite near total eradication in the lower 48 states, wolves are on the road to recovery thanks to protection afforded them under the Endangered Species Act  (ESA) and to efforts by Defenders of Wildlife and other partner conservation organizations, tribes, state and federal agencies and citizen activists.

Wolves once roamed across the North American continent, from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast and from Canada and Alaska’s low Arctic to Mexico’s Central Plateau. Together, two species, the gray wolf (Canis lupus) and the red wolf (Canis rufus), may have numbered 400,000 or more before European settlement (Leonard et al. 2005). Misconceptions rooted in myth and folklore, along with concerns over competition between people and wolves for wild game and livestock, contributed to negative attitudes toward wolves.

Shortly after Europeans arrived, human intolerance led to aggressive eradication programs that eliminated wolves from most of their former range. Populations survived in Canada and Alaska, but in the lower 48 states, the only wolves left by the 1960s were gray wolves in northern Minnesota, Michigan’s Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior and red wolves in a small portion of Texas and Louisiana (Mech 1995).

A change in attitude

As the last wolves were eradicated from the western United States in the early 20th century, pioneers in the study of this persecuted species—scientists like Ernest Thompson Seton, Stanley P. Young, Adolph Murie and Aldo Leopold—warned that the loss of wolves would result in widespread damage to the environment. The concerns of these researchers (now considered the fathers of modern wolf conservation) were eventually adopted by the emerging environmental movement gaining momentum nationwide in the 1960s and 1970s.

National campaigns, movies and popular stories also fostered increasingly favorable attitudes toward wolves. The International Wolf Center and the Science Museum of Minnesota mounted “Wolves and Humans,” a traveling exhibit seen by more than 2.5 million people in 18 U.S. and Canadian cities in nine years on the road. Books like Farley Mowat’s “Never Cry Wolf,” released in 1963 and adapted for a 1983 feature film, and Barry Lopez’s “Of Wolves and Men,” a 1978 National Book Award finalist, were widely read and acclaimed.

Fueled by this positive shift in public attitude toward these top predators, the recovery of wolves in the United States began to accelerate (Musiani and Paquet 2004).

Protections pave way for recovery

Wolves were first formally designated as “endangered” in 1967 under an earlier and much weaker version of today’s ESA that provided no protection against lethal wolf control. When the current ESA was enacted in 1973, all the species listed as endangered under the earlier law, including gray and red wolves, were automatically listed  as endangered under the new, much more protective law.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) designated red wolves as endangered and gray wolves as threatened in Minnesota and endangered in the rest of the lower 48 states. Thanks to these protections, gray wolf populations in Minnesota increased significantly and dispersed into Wisconsin and Michigan.

In 1987, FWS released captive-bred red wolves in northeastern North Carolina. Meanwhile, out west the prohibition under the 1973 ESA  of  hunting, trapping, harassing or otherwise harming wolves allowed the predators to slowly expand their range south of the Canadian border. Defenders helped  win support for further wolf expansion and acceptance through programs to reimburse ranchers for livestock losses and to prevent losses in the first place. Wolf recovery in the Northern Rockies then got a huge boost in 1995 when FWS released gray wolves from Canada into Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho.  And finally, in 1998, FWS released captive-bred Mexican gray wolves into a remote area in Arizona.

The public remains fascinated with wolves. Tourists from all over the world flock to Yellowstone and other wolf habitats, substantially benefiting local economies. With the successful restoration of wolves to key areas like Yellowstone and central Idaho, and their tentative return to the Southwest, modern science is now proving what Seton, Young, Murie and Leopold understood so long ago: Wolves have significant and important influences on other species and their environment (Smith et al. 2003, Ripple and Beschta 2012).

Click here to download the full Places for Wolves report.

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