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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.

How many gray wolves are in the United States?

More than 5,500 gray wolves are thought to remain in the lower 48 states. Currently, there are self-sustaining populations in Alaska, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. Alaska's wolf population is estimated between 7,700 and 11,200. There are small populations in Oregon and Washington and a small, experimental population on the border of Arizona and New Mexico.

Genetic data suggest that the historic population in this area was roughly 400,000. However, with the European settlers came the widespread persecution of wolves, and according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “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.

Is the gray wolf protected by the Endangered Species Act?

The gray wolf was one of first species listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1974. Despite the wolf's continued imperilment, between 2003 and 2009 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) repeatedly sought to limit or completely remove ESA protections for the gray wolf. In these instances, unable to justify depriving ESA protection from the entire continental U.S. population, the USFWS took a divide-and-conquer approach. Rather than apply criteria for ESA protections to the continental U.S. 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 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. In other words, wolves are no longer listed under the ESA where viable gray wolf populations exist. Gray wolves remain ESA-listed everywhere outside these areas in the lower 48 states. However, the USFWS is proposing to delist nearly all the remaining wolves from protection under the Endangered Species list, which would transfer management authority to individual states and leave wolves vulnerable to trophy hunting. (See the timeline below for details.)

Why is it important to put the existing populations of gray wolves back 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 of wolves from the Endangered Species List could be devastating to the recovery of the gray wolf in the lower 48 states.

The delisting decisions turned over management of the species to state agencies in the regions, even though many of these states had already announced plans to institute wolf hunting seasons. The action subjects wolves to high levels of trapping, poisoning, and recreational hunting based on the desire to appease certain interest groups, like the hunting lobby and livestock industry, rather than by sound science, which the Endangered Species Act requires the USFWS to follow in making any decisions about delisting a species.

Returning this key carnivore to the wide variety of habitats it once occupied would help restore balance to those ecosystems. Numerous scientific studies have confirmed the importance of so-called "apex predators" to ecosystem health, function, and stability. The effects of these carnivores is not only observed 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 wolf populations?

As wolves were removed from the Endangered Species List in the Northern Rockies and Great Lakes regions, individual states assumed the management of their wolf populations, independent of federal control. Now that management authority has been turned over to the states, wolf populations could face drastic reductions in their numbers. Many states with current wolf populations have created wolf management plans that call for increased killing of wolves in response to livestock and public-safety complaints. Such state plans also include immediate trophy hunting seasons to reduce current wolf populations to numbers that hover just above the minimum for relisting.

The population goals in all of the state plans are not based on any historical estimates but have been arbitrarily set at levels that will restrict the expansion of the species. Under these state plans, further expansion of current populations would be inhibited, effectively stopping wolf recovery in its tracks.

Since the delisting, Idaho, Minnesota, Michigan, Montana, Wisconsin, and Wyoming have opened wolf hunting seasons. These states have authorized some of the most inhumane and unsporting methods of killing wolves, including painful steel-jawed leghold traps, hunting over bait, and even using packs of dogs to chase down and kill wolves. See details on how many wolves have been killed in each state so far

Do wolves pose a threat to people and their pets?

Generally, wolves avoid humans. There have only been a handful of recorded wild wolf attacks on humans in North America, and no lethal attacks have ever been confirmed. (In the rare instance that a wolf approaches in a threatening manner, stand your ground. Never run or turn your back, as such behavior is typical of prey. Make noise and throw objects at the wolf.) The most important thing to remember about wolves—and other wild animals—is that they should NEVER be fed. If wild animals associate humans with food, they will lose their natural fear and become much more likely to act aggressively towards humans.

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 non-lethal techniques and products that can be employed to protect livestock from wolf predation. Such devices, including turbo fladry (flags hung off of an electric wire), electronic training collars, non-lethal ammunition (capsicum-filled, rubber, or noise making rounds), and guard animals (dogs 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.

What is The HSUS doing to protect wolves?

We are working through litigation to restore federal protections under the Endangered Species Act for wolves in the state of Wyoming. The HSUS has also filed suit against the USFWS to restore federal ESA protections for wolves in the western Great Lakes region. Litigation brought by The HSUS and other organizations has stopped previous attempts to eliminate federal protections for wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains and western Great Lakes regions, and in 2006, The HSUS won a court battle to prevent the broad-scale killing of wolves in Wisconsin under the auspices of enhancement permits. We’re also working to protect wolves through advocacy in state legislatures to ensure that wolves are not unnecessarily persecuted. For example, we are 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.

What about the Mexican gray wolf and red wolf?

The Mexican gray wolf is considered a subspecies of the gray wolf. This reintroduced population is classified by the FWS as a non-essential experimental population. Mexican wolves are generally smaller in size than other gray wolves. This variant once ranged throughout the desert southwest (Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico) but is now solely found in the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area (BRWRA). This area spans the border between Arizona and New Mexico. A total of 90 captive-bred wolves have been reintroduced into the BRWRA since 1998. Despite major efforts by the USFWS to establish self-sustaining populations in this recovery zone, illegal killings, lethal depredation control, the inadequate size of the recovery area, and the negative effects of inbreeding have hampered the growth and expansion of the population. Currently, there are approximately 75 individuals in this population.

Red wolves, native to the southeastern United States, are considered a separate species (Canis rufus) by most researchers. They are generally smaller than gray wolves, and their fur tends to have a reddish hue, though dark or black fur has been recorded. In the 1970s, the USFWS removed 14 of the 17 known wild red wolves from their habitat on the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana and placed them in captive breeding facilities around the country. Starting in 1987, the USFWS reintroduced individuals from this bloodline into North Carolina, where the species once ranged.

From the original pair and a number of later introductions, a stable, wild, reproducing population of over 100 individuals survives today in five counties. However, owing to the propensity of the red wolf to mate with coyotes, this reintroduction has been accompanied by the management of coyotes in the Red Wolf Recovery Zone. This management scheme includes the surgical sterilization or lethal removal of coyotes that may potentially hybridize with reintroduced red wolves. Wolf/coyote hybrids are also killed or sterilized. As the numbers of red wolves increases, these naturally territorial animals have begun to displace and kill coyotes in the recovery area, leading to a self-sustaining wild population. However, hunters do mistake red wolves for coyotes on occasion, and these animals have been mistakenly shot.

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.