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Frequently Asked Questions about the Gray Wolf in the United States

The gray wolf is still struggling for survival

The Humane Society of the United States

  • We're fighting to restore Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves in the United States. Radius Images/Alamy

Now found only in a handful of states, gray wolves once roamed across the United States in the hundreds of thousands. Though gray wolves were protected under the Endangered Species Act in the lower 48 states for decades, they have recently been stripped of their federal protection in the Northern Rocky Mountains and Western Great Lakes, leaving wolf management in the hands of individual states in these areas— many of which have started or are planning to start wolf hunting seasons.

With their numbers still recovering, state management of wolves could be disastrous. That's why we're fighting to restore federal protections for gray wolves, as well as advocating in state legislatures to ensure that wolves are not unnecessarily persecuted.

Gray wolves (Canis lupus) and Mexican gray wolves (Canis lupus baileyi) once roamed across the United States by the hundreds of thousands. Relentlessly persecuted, they were nearly wiped out from the lower 48 states by the mid-1900s. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) placed gray wolves under the protections of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in the lower 48 states in 1974 and did the same for the Mexican wolf in 1976. Imperiled gray wolves began to slowly recover, but the Mexican wolf program remains a dire conservation concern.

In 2012, after gray wolves had recovered to approximately 5% of their original range, wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains (e.g., Idaho, Montana and Wyoming) and the Western Great Lakes (Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin) were stripped of federal protections. Their management was handed to those individual states, which immediately waged aggressive wolf hunting, trapping, neck snaring and, in the case of Wisconsin, even hounding and baiting seasons on wolves. Within just three years, more than 1,500 gray wolves were killed for trophies, for misplaced human anxiety about competition for food — whether for wild ungulates (e.g., deer, elk or moose) or domestic animals (e.g., cattle and sheep) — or hatred. For some, wolves symbolize federal government interference and become proxies for displaced hatred. These  illegal poaching activities often go unenforced by either state or federal wildlife-management agencies.

Fortunately, in late 2014, the tide turned back to wolf conservation when the HSUS and other wolf-protection organizations won lawsuits on behalf of wolves. As a result of these citizen lawsuits, the wolves of Wyoming, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan were placed back under ESA protections, where they remain today. But the fight is not over. Spurred on by trophy hunting, agricultural and other special interest groups that want to reduce wolf populations through hunting, Congress continues to attempt to delist wolves again with legislative bills and surreptitious “riders” (wolf delisting language inserted into must-pass bills). Wildlife protection organizations and the public must remain vigilant in maintaining federal protections for wolves, as well as advocating in state legislatures and wildlife regulatory agencies to ensure that these animals are not unnecessarily persecuted.

How many gray wolves are in the United States?

Biologists believe that more than 5,500 gray wolves remain in the lower 48 states. Currently, populations exist in Alaska, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. According to Defenders of Wildlife, Alaska's wolf population is estimated to be between 7,000 and 12,000. Oregon, Washington and now California also provide home to a few wolves. Genetic data suggest that the historic population in this area was roughly 400,000. However, with European settlers came the widespread persecution of wolves, and according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), “wolves were hunted and killed with more passion and zeal than any other animal in U.S. history.” Habitat destruction and government bounties that encouraged the poisoning, trapping and hunting of wolves resulted in their extirpation from nearly all of their range in the lower 48 states.

The highly-endangered Mexican gray wolf, affectionately known as the “lobo” (the Spanish word for wolf), is the smallest, rarest and most genetically distinct subspecies of gray wolves. Lobos once roamed by the thousands across Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and the Republic of Mexico. Completely eradicated in the U.S. by the 1970s, only about seven individuals survived in Mexico, where they were captured and placed into breeding facilities. In 1998, 11 lobos were released into the wild. Today, only about 100 wild lobos live on the border between Arizona and New Mexico. Despite facing a critical inbreeding crisis, the USFWS will not release captive bred individuals even as they continue to face relentless persecution from unprosecuted poachers. The USFWS readily permits USDA-Wildlife Services to cull them because of ranchers’ exaggerated complaints. The State of New Mexico also permits indiscriminate trapping in lobo territory, ostensibly for cougars, bobcats and coyotes (but The HSUS is coming to the rescue of lobos and wild cats by suing New Mexico over this issue). Visit http://mexicanwolves.org/ for more information about the plight of Mexican gray wolves.

Is the gray wolf protected by the Endangered Species Act?

In 1974, gray wolves were listed under the ESA, one of first species ever granted that protection. But despite the continued imperilment of gray wolves, between 2003 and 2009 the USFWS repeatedly sought to limit or completely remove their ESA protections. In these instances, unable to justify depriving ESA protections from the entire continental U.S. population, the USFWS took an unlawful divide-and-conquer approach. Rather than apply criteria for ESA protections to the continental U.S. gray wolf population as a whole, the USFWS proposed that the population should not be treated as a single population but as a set of separate, independent populations, referred to as distinct population segments (DPSs), and that protections should be reduced or eliminated for these DPSs. Each previous attempt was overturned by a federal court based on litigation brought by The HSUS and other animal protection and conservation organizations, restoring ESA protections for wolves.

The current areas occupied by gray wolves have been classified by the USFWS as two DPSs — one in the Northern Rocky Mountains (Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and parts of Washington, Oregon and Utah) and one in the Western Great Lakes (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and parts of the Dakotas, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio). However, throughout 2011 and 2012, wolves in both population segments (the Northern Rocky Mountains and the Western Great Lakes) were “delisted,” which removed ESA protections for most wolves in the contiguous United States. Many of those states immediately began trophy hunting and trapping seasons on wolves upon delisting. Litigation by The HSUS and other wolf protection groups returned this imperiled species to ESA protections in Wyoming, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan in late 2014, where they remain today. However, Congress continues to press legislation to delist nearly all the remaining wolves from ESA protection, once again transferring management authority to individual states and re-opening trophy hunting and trapping seasons on wolves (see the timeline below for details).

Why is it important for the existing populations of gray wolves to remain on the Endangered Species List?

Based on the long and continuing legacy of wolf persecution and hatred by some segments of the population, the premature delisting from the Endangered Species List could be devastating to the recovery of the gray wolf in the lower 48 states.

Delisting decisions have turned over management of the species to state agencies in the regions, even though many of these states had already announced plans to begin seasons that would subject wolves to high levels of trapping, baiting, hunting and, in Wisconsin, hounding (being chased by packs of trailing hounds). This is based on the desire if the USFWS to appease certain interest groups, like the hunting lobby and livestock industry, rather than make determinations based on sound science — which the USFWS is required to do when considering the delisting of a species under the Endangered Species Act.

Returning this keystone carnivore to the wide variety of habitats it once occupied would help restore balance to those ecosystems.[1] Numerous scientific studies have confirmed the importance of “trophic cascades” from “apex predators” like wolves to ecosystem health, function and stability, and to increasing biological diversity. The effects of these native carnivores is observed not only through the regulation of prey populations, but also in the restoration of plant communities and the reestablishment of species that are directly dependent upon the habitat conditions facilitated by the predatory actions of the wolf.

Why does The HSUS oppose state management of gray wolves?

When wolves were removed from the Endangered Species List in the Northern Rockies and Great Lakes regions in 2012, individual states assumed the management of their wolf populations, independent of federal control. In those states — particularly in Minnesota and Wisconsin — wolf populations immediately faced drastic reductions at the hands of trophy hunters and trappers, and viciously cruel and unsporting practices including baiting, trapping, snaring and even the use of packs of trailing hounds to chase down wolves. In addition, the Wisconsin enacted a plan upon delisting to drastically reduce its wolf population to a dangerously low number. See details on how many wolves were killed in the wolf hunting states from 2012 to 2016. A successful 2014 ballot referendum in Michigan halted the hunting and trapping of wolves in that state, and subsequent litigation returned all of the Great Lakes and Wyoming wolves to federal protections. However, those states are continuing to pressure Congress and the USFWS to reverse that decision so that their relentless persecution of wolves can resume.

Each of the states with wolves has created a wolf management plan. Those plans will be enacted if wolves are delisted again. But the population goals in those plans are not based on the best available science or historical estimates of wolf numbers and instead have been arbitrarily set at levels that will restrict the expansion of the species, effectively stopping wolf recovery in its tracks.

Do wolves pose a threat to people and their pets?

Wolves avoid humans and in the past 100 years no lethal attacks have been confirmed in the lower 48 states by wild, healthy wolves. The most important thing to remember about wolves — and other wild animals — is that they should never be fed, whether intentionally or not. If wild animals associate humans with food, they will lose their natural fear and may habituate to being in the proximity of humans.

Livestock growers should protect their animals using proven effective, non-lethal techniques such as range riders, guard animals, penning animals close to human habitation, electric fencing, birthing in barns or sheds and removing and disposing of deceased or still-born animals in a prompt manner. This also prevents the spread of deadly prion diseases such as Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).

As is the case in all areas where wild carnivores are present, pets should never be left outdoors unattended in wolf habitat. Pets should always be fed indoors, and dogs should be sterilized to prevent the possibility of breeding with wolves. Dogs should never be allowed off-leash in wolf country. Wolves will perceive these dogs as intruders or competitors from outside the pack and will attack to defend their territory.

Can livestock be protected from wolf predation?

Yes. There are a wide variety of effective, non-lethal techniques and products that can be employed to protect livestock from predation by native carnivores. Such devices, including turbo fladry (flags hung off of an electric wire), electronic training collars, non-lethal ammunition (capsicum-filled, rubber or noisemaking rounds) and guard animals (dogs, donkeys and llamas), have all been effectively utilized to reduce wolf-livestock conflicts. Improved husbandry practices include the penning of livestock during birthing season and at night, the removal of animal carcasses from the field and even shepherding (range riding). While wolves can habituate to individual techniques over the long term, recent successes in Idaho show that a combination of non-lethal methodologies can be 100 percent effective.

It is important to add, however, that the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service has continually pointed out that among the many potential hazards to livestock, including disease, injury, weather events and digestive, respiratory and birthing problems, wolves and other predators are at the very low end of the scale. You can find more on this topic here. What’s more, studies have found that lethal control of wolves, including recreational hunting and trapping, is not an effective way to mitigate wolf conflicts with livestock, and can even make any problems worse by dispersing stable family packs and sending inexperienced juveniles into areas where they get into trouble.

What is The HSUS doing to protect wolves?

We are working through litigation and state regulatory and legislative measures to retain federal protections under the ESA for wolves in the states of Wyoming, Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin, and to prohibit the trophy hunting, trapping and hounding of wolves in these states. We are also part of stakeholder groups in several states, and we advise on nonlethal solutions for gray wolf depredation control as states create, update and amend their wolf management plans.

Timeline of Gray Wolf Protection

December 2014: The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issues an order invalidated the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's 2011 rule delisting wolves in the western Great Lakes region, requiring that sport hunting and trapping of wolves in the region must end immediately.

December 2014: The annual wolf hunt ends early in Minnesota and Wisconsin, with hunters and trappers exceeding state quotas at record pace. In Minnesota, 272 wolves were killed, 22 more than the stated quota, with 84 percent of late season wolves killed in traps. In Wisconsin, 154 wolves were killed, four more than the quota permitted and 80 percent killed in leghold traps.

November 2014: Voters repeal PA 520 (moving the wolf to the game species list) with a 55 percent "no" vote, and they also repeal PA 21 (giving the NRC the authority to decide which species can be hunted), with a 64 percent "no" vote. Repeal of PA 21 was approved by 69 of 83 counties, in a landslide rejection of NRC decision-making power.

September 2014: Federal protections for gray wolves in Wyoming are reinstated after a judge invalidated the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's 2012 rule delisting of the species in that state, requiring that sport hunting and trapping of wolves in Wyoming must end immediately.

August 2014: The Michigan legislature passes the "Scientific Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act" and, not requiring the governor's signature, the bill immediately becomes law (PA 281).

March 2014: Keep Michigan Wolves Protected submits signatures to the Michigan Secretary of State, marking its second referendum for the November 4 ballot that would protect wolves and restore the right of Michigan voters to weigh in on critical wildlife issues. This referendum specifically would restore voter’s ability to weigh in on not just wolves, but almost any protected animal the NRC may wish to add to the list of game species to be hunted and trapped for sport.

November 2013: Michigan's first-ever annual wolf season begins and a total of 22 wolves are killed. A coalition funded by sport-hunting groups announces plans for its own petition drive for a citizen initiated bill called the "Scientific Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act," which is intended to reaffirm the NRC's ability to designate game species. In a move to make the bill immune from Michigan voter referendum, the bill included a $1 million appropriation earmark.

June 2013: USFWS publishes its proposal to delist the gray wolf from the federal Endangered Species Act throughout the Lower 48 states where wolves are not already delisted.

May 2013: Michigan Gov. Snyder signs legislation (PA 21) allowing the Natural Resources Commission to designate new game species instead of just the legislature. PA 21 is intended to allow wolf hunting even if PA 520 was suspended or repealed by referendum.

March 2013: A coalition of groups including The HSUS called "Keep Michigan Wolves Protected" submit 253,705 signatures to the Michigan Secretary of State’s office, marking the coalition’s first petition drive to stop a wolf hunting season through referendum of PA 520. The referendum would allow Michigan voters to decide whether wolves should be hunted in the November 2014 election.

February 2013: Wildlife protection groups, including The HSUS, file suit against the USFWS over its decision to remove the protections of the Endangered Species Act from gray wolves living in the western Great Lakes region.

October 2012: Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signs legislation (PA 520) designating the wolf as a game species and authorizing the Natural Resources Commission to establish a wolf hunting season.

December 2012: The HSUS and The Fund for Animals file a lawsuit to restore federal protections for Wyoming wolves.

September 2012: The USFWS removes wolves in Wyoming from federal Endangered Species Act protections.

April 2012 - July 2012: Wisconsin enacts legislation mandating a wolf hunting and trapping season, requiring that the state wildlife agency authorize the use of packs of dogs, night hunting, and snare and leg-hold traps. The state wildlife agency adopts regulations for the hunting and trapping of wolves in 2012-2013 via emergency rules, and sets the quota at 201 wolves.

July 2011 - August 2012: Minnesota enacts legislation allowing a wolf hunting and trapping season once wolves are delisted. The state wildlife agency adopts regulations for the hunting and trapping of wolves in 2012-2013 via emergency rules, and sets the quota at 400 wolves.

December 2011: The USFWS issues a final rule delisting the gray wolf population in the western Great Lakes.

April 2011: Congress delists wolves in Montana and Idaho, and portions of Washington, Oregon, and Utah, marking the first time ever that Congress has removed protections for any species on the Endangered Species List.

August 2010: In response to litigation brought by The HSUS and others, a federal court ruling reinstates federal protections for wolves in Idaho and Montana and prevents wolf hunts from going forward in those states.

August 2009: The HSUS and others file suit to block wolf hunts in Idaho and Montana and restore federal Endangered Species act protections to wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains.

July 2009: The HSUS enters into a court-approved settlement agreement with the USFWS that reinstated federal protections for wolves in the western Great Lakes region.

June 2009: The HSUS and others file suit in federal court to block the delisting of Great Lakes wolves.

April 2009: The USFWS issues a final rule delisting the gray wolf population in the western Great Lakes and northern Rockies, except for those in Wyoming.

September 2008: In response to litigation filed by The HSUS and other organizations, a federal court overturns the USFWS’ decision to delist wolves in the western Great Lakes, thereby reinstating federal protections for gray wolves in the region.

July 2008: In response to litigation filed by The HSUS and others, a federal judge issues an injunction restoring northern Rockies gray wolves to the endangered species list pending the conclusion of a lawsuit challenging their delisting.

February 2007: The USFWS issues final rules delisting the gray wolf population in the western Great Lakes and northern Rocky Mountains.

2005 - 2006: The USFWS tries to strip wolves of protection by issuing special exemption permits to the state of Wisconsin that authorize state officials to kill dozens of wolves. These permits are thrown out by a federal court in response to a lawsuit by The HSUS.

2005: Two federal courts both rule that the 2003 downlisting was arbitrary and capricious, returning the wolf to endangered status.

2003: The USFWS issues a final rule downgrading most of the gray wolves living in the lower 48 states from endangered to threatened, making it easier for people to lethally take wolves.

1978: Gray wolves are listed at the species level under the Endangered Species Act as endangered throughout the coterminous United States and Mexico, except in Minnesota, where gray wolves were listed as threatened.

1974: Various subspecies of wolves are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

1967: Wolves are listed under the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966, the precursor to the Endangered Species Act.


Notes

[1] Once wolves had been restored to Yellowstone National Park and Banff National Park in sufficient number, researchers found that they mediated elk populations and curbed ungulate browsing of aspens through behavioral changes (Hebblewhite et al. 2005, Beschta and Ripple 2006, Ripple and Beschta 2007), and that aspen recruitment increased for the first time in over a half century due to the presence of wolves (Ripple and Beschta 2007). Even when the elk population had decreased in Yellowstone prior to wolf recovery, elk browsing continued to negatively affect willow and plant communities (Beschta and Ripple 2006). With the return of wolves, changes in the trophic processes were immediate and noticeable: first elk browsing, then willow recovery, then beaver lodge density, then stream restoration (including reduced flooding, channeling and bank erosion) and even increased songbird diversity (Hebblewhite et al. 2005, Beschta and Ripple 2006).

Wolves lose significant amounts of their kills to scavengers such as ravens, magpies, eagles, coyotes and brown bears (Stahler et al. 2006). Wolves also increase biological diversity by checking the effects of mesopredators on numerous species (e.g., Ritchie and Johnson 2009, Estes et al. 2011, Ripple et al. 2011), to the benefit of species such as pronghorn and lynx (Berger et al. 2008, Ripple et al. 2011). Wolves act as a buffer to the effects of climate change by creating more carrion for scavengers and making it available year round, to the advantage of bald and golden eagles, brown bears, ravens, magpies and coyotes (Wilmers and Getz 2005, Stahler et al. 2006, Constible et al. 2008).