Mexican gray wolf (captive), © Wolf Conservation Center
This Wolf Awareness Week, take a look at how far wolf recovery has come over the past several years – and the important work we still have to do.
By the mid-1930s, gray wolves had been exterminated across most of the lower 48 states. In the following decades, Mexican gray wolves and red wolves also disappeared from the wild.

Thankfully, that wasn’t the end of the story. A captive breeding program and reintroduction rescued red wolves from their brush with extinction, paving the way for similar efforts with other wolves. The reintroduction of gray wolves to Yellowstone National Park in the 1990s marked for many the true return of wolves to the West.

We’ve come a long way since then. Decades of work from state and federal agencies, and our own organization as well as countless others, have helped wolves rebound. In that time, we have seen reactions to wolves run the full gamut between loathing and reverence. We’ve seen states’ aggressive attempts to drive wolf numbers down, and privately-run “wolf derbies” designed to kill as many as possible. But we’ve also seen wolves return to habitats where they haven’t set foot in decades. We’ve seen communities learn to adapt to life in wolf country, and formed groundbreaking collaborations with livestock producers that keep wolves on the ground safe.

We’re proud of the work that’s behind us – but also know that this work is never done. We want to see wolves thriving in healthy habitats across North America, fulfilling their crucial role as top predators, maintaining the health of wildland ecosystems, and valued as an iconic species of wildlife. So what’s next?

Wolves of the Rockies – Colorado Here We Come!

yellowstone wolf, © Barrett Hedges/NGS

Gray wolves have returned to most of the northern Rockies. Each state manages wolves their own way, and our experts keep a close eye on implementation of and changes to state management plans and practices so that we can take advantage of every opportunity to advocate for wolves. We’re also promoting coexistence with ranchers in the region – encouraging them to use nonlethal methods of keeping wolves away from livestock and saving the lives of wolves.

The southern Rockies are a different story. This region has some of the best wolf habitat in all the lower 48 states. What it doesn’t have is wolves – a fact we hope to change. Our team in Colorado is working to build support for wolves in the region, teaching residents about the value these animals bring to the landscape, and reaching out to state wildlife officials to develop new policies that would make it safer for wolves to return to the state. We’ll also be working with ranchers to help them understand the nonlethal options they would have to prevent conflict with their livestock, so that they can also be among our allies as wolves begin to return.

Restoring wolves to the southern Rockies would be an incredible achievement. It would mean that wolves – a top predator incredibly valuable to native ecosystems – have been restored along the entire spine of the continent, from the Arctic all the way down to Mexico. That’s the long-term vision for wolves that we hope to achieve. We know it won’t happen quickly, but we’re up to the challenge.

West Coast Wolves – Focus on Coexistence 

Snake River Pack wolf, © ODFW

In Washington, Oregon and California, wolves are still returning.

Washington (which currently holds about 90 wolves) and Oregon (about 110 wolves), are both in the process of learning how to manage both wolves and livestock on the landscape. We’re glad to be a part of this process, pushing for use of the nonlethal methods of avoiding conflict that we have seen work so well in other states. Happily, this is making a big difference for wolves on the ground. The states’ policies are evolving to better protect wolves, and in Washington in particular, the number of livestock producers using nonlethal tools instead of calling for wolves to be removed has more than tripled over the past few years.

Of course, we were all thrilled last year when California was found to finally have its own wolf pack! Wolves in the Golden State are still protected under the Endangered Species Act, but that could change if the Fish and Wildlife Service moves forward with the national delisting proposal it introduced in 2013. That’s why our California team led the way in lobbying the state to protect gray wolves under the state Endangered Species Act, giving the animals an extra layer of protection if they should need it. With that goal achieved, we’re pushing for a strong, science-based conservation plan from state officials, and laying the groundwork for the same kind of coexistence work we are pursuing throughout the west.

Red Wolves – Holding FWS Accountable 

Red wolf (captive), © USFWS

This species of native wolf, found today only in a small corner of North Carolina, is in dire straits. Though the red wolf recovery program was once the model for wolf reintroductions across the U.S., the Fish and Wildlife Service has bowed to politics in recent years, all but abandoning the program, and causing the red wolf population to crash from 150 down to fewer than 45 wolves on the ground. Recently, FWS proposed a plan in which they would effectively doom red wolves to extinction in the wild, rounding up most of them up for capture to bring into captivity.

Defenders and several other wolf advocate groups are working hard to make sure this doesn’t happen. Our team on the ground is working to raise awareness and support for the red wolf recovery program in every corner of North Carolina and beyond, reaching out to citizens and landowners as well as decision makers in the state capitol and wildlife agency. We’re calling on everyone who cares about red wolves to tell the FWS to do its job and recover endangered species in the wild, not just in captivity. We’re also pushing for FWS to find more sites for red wolf reintroductions, and will do everything we can to ensure that the howl of the red wolf continues to be heard.

Mexican Gray Wolves – Pushing for More Wolves, Less Politics 

Mexican gray wolf, © Wolf Conservation Center

Wolves Need Your Help

To save wolves – and ensure they continue to survive and thrive – we need unique, innovative approaches to protecting habitat and reducing conflicts with people. That’s what Defenders is known for.

Support Our Work »

On the other side of the country, politics has also taken hold of the Mexican gray wolf, a smaller, more timid subspecies of gray wolf. Regular wolf releases are desperately needed to bolster the still-recovering wild population. But in the last seven years, only four new wolves have been released from captivity. Of these, three are dead and one has been recaptured.

The states of Arizona and New Mexico (in collusion with anti-wolf congressmen) are interfering with Mexican gray wolf recovery, pushing for the effort to fall to the states instead, even though both states have repeatedly given way to anti-wolf special interests. We are fighting back with every tool we have, pushing the Fish and Wildlife Service to continue its recovery efforts for this key species, and even defending the agency’s right to do so in court. At the same time, our team on the ground is gathering support for Mexican gray wolves across the landscape, and working with ranchers and other stakeholders to promote nonlethal tools so that we don’t continue to see these valuable wolves lost because of wolf-livestock conflicts that could have been prevented.