Gray Wolf, © Joan Poor

So often when we talk about wolves, we talk about how they are managed or the level of protection provided in states with wolf populations. In doing so, it’s easy to forget that today wolves occupy only a fraction of their historic range and suitable habitat. Even in some states where they have returned, like Washington, their numbers are incredibly low. Such sparse numbers mean that the wolves are struggling to gain a toehold.

Like any species, very small populations of wolves are vulnerable to disease as well as natural and human-caused disasters. One contagious illness or one catastrophic event could easily mean the end of a pack or even multiple packs if there are not enough wolves to provide the population with some resiliency. We also need to ensure that different populations of wolves are connected to allow wolves to disperse between populations and ensure genetic exchange, which is essential for the health of the population.

The vision for wolf recovery is far from complete. Today, wolves live in only 36 percent of the suitable habitat available in the lower 48 states. So let’s examine a few places that we believe offer excellent wolf habitat, but currently do not have any wolves.
  • California: While wandering wolf OR-7 made headlines over the past few years for his frequent crossings from Oregon into California (in 2011, he became the first wolf to cross into California since the 1930s), the state does not currently have a wolf population. Northern California has some great habitat for wolves in the country. We hope to see crossings from Oregon into the Golden State become more frequent.
  • Utah: Northeast Utah could be an important corridor connecting wolf populations from the northern to the central Rockies. Utah has ample wolf habitat, but no wolves yet. Unfortunately, Utah has already established extreme anti-wolf policies so that if wolves do make their way to the Beehive State, they won’t receive a warm welcome.
  • Colorado: According to a 2013 poll, 72 percent of Colorado residents are in favor of protecting wolves that cross into the state from other areas. The same survey found that 70 percent of residents support restoring wolves in Colorado wilderness areas if they do not naturally recolonize. Colorado has a lot of potential wolf habitat and it’s clear that residents would welcome them if they ever made it there.
  • New York: Wolves have yet to regain a foothold in the Northeast; they disappeared long ago due to the widespread extermination campaign that began with colonial settlers. Individual wolf sightings have been documented in the Northeast, but no breeding pairs are known to exist. Yet suitable wolf habitat does exist in upstate New York, as well as other areas.
  • Maine: Could wolves naturally disperse from Canada to the northeastern U.S. on their own? It’s a topic of great debate. Natural barriers like the St. Lawrence River make it difficult for wolves from Canada to recolonize naturally in the region, but several studies show that there is good habitat and plenty of prey for wolves to live in northern and central Maine and across northern New Hampshire.
But, no matter how ideal the habitat, it is ultimately up to people in those states to determine if wolves will be allowed to survive (and thrive) in any given area.

Gray Wolf, © Michael QuintonIf gray wolves are delisted across most of the country later this year, is likely that most of the states and habitats described above will never see wolves again. A national wolf delisting will hand all wolf management over to individual states. In Idaho, we are seeing what can happen when states with prominent anti-wolf politics have control of their wolf populations. Could this be a foreshadowing of the type of aggressive wolf management we will likely see in other states if wolves disperse there after delisting occurs? States would have the power to prevent wolves from returning to these areas and gaining a foothold by putting excessive lethal control policies into place and refusing to protect wolves under state laws. Such extreme measures would effectively close the door on wolf recovery across their historic range — a sad end to the effort to fully restore an iconic animal to the American wilderness.
What can you do?
Call for a status review of gray wolves in the Northern Rockies – the first step to restoring Endangered Species Act protections for this embattled population.
Learn the truth about wolves and their role in the ecosystem, and use it to combat the rampant misinformation spread by those who oppose wolf restoration.
Support our work fighting for wolves on the ground, in the courts and on Capitol Hill.
Melanie Gade is a Communications Specialist at Defenders of Wildlife