Wild Wolves in the US: a History

The Beginning

The moment the first wolf faced its fear and stepped into the circle of light cast by man's fire has been lost in time. In that now obscure moment, the history of man and wolf was forever changed. Since the moment wolf first trusted man, and man first trusted wolf, many things have changed. For centuries, the indigenous peoples of the Americas depicted the wolf in their art and stories. Most often, the painting or story displayed wolf and human joined as one powerful creature. In some legends, the wolf is given healing powers and in others the wolf saved the people from the great flood. Many Native Americans believed in man’s brotherhood with the wolf.

Not so long ago, wolves roamed nearly all of the United States. Between 250,000 and 500,000 wild wolves lived in harmony with Native Americans and the rest of the ecosystem.

Persecution and Extermination - 1960’s

Over a hundred years ago, people around the world began waging a war against the wolf. The U.S. government implemented a nationwide policy of wolf control. Wolves were seen as pests that posed a threat to the continued safety and prosperity of the American people. Theodore Roosevelt, a man widely known for his environmental activism, declared the wolf as "the beast of waste and destruction" and called for its eradication. Their skulls and skins were piled high for victory photographs and to claim the bounties. Most believed they served God and the United States by ridding the countryside of such vermin. The wolf is the only species to be deliberately driven to the brink of extinction by humans.

Through a systematic extermination of every wolf to be found, the US government won its battle against nature. By 1960, the once populous gray wolf was essentially extinct throughout its former range. The last 300 wolves in the lower 48 states roamed the deep woods of upper Michigan and Minnesota, only surviving by running and hiding at the first sign of humans.

Slow Natural Recovery - 1970’s

Even though the official war against the wolf had ended in the rest of the US shortly after 1960, hunters still searched for the few elusive remnant wolves remaining in the Great Lakes' region. Despite hunters' best efforts, the northern timber wolves held their ground and actually began to make a slight comeback. With the cover of a vast, dense forest and the immigration of dispersing wolves from Canada, Michigan and Wisconsin’s wolves persevered. By 1970, there were a few reports of wolf sightings father from the Canadian border than there had been in over a decade. The last of America's wild wolves were starting to win some public interest and concern... and talk of the Endangered Species List had just begun.

At the same time, the last of the Mexican grey wolves (a subspecies of gray wolf) were disappearing. Smaller than the typical gray wolf, the Mexican gray is usually sandy colored, lives in a small pack and is better adapted to its desert surroundings. They had already disappeared from the American South West by 1970, and the few living in Mexico were under serious attack.

The Magic Pack - 1980’s

After the monumental declaration that the gray wolf was protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1974, wolf recovery became possible in new areas. The public's interest and fascination grew in leaps and bounds as the American culture became more and more removed from nature. It was only after the wolves were gone and people had to go in search of true wilderness, that we began to value what we had lost.

1980 marked the extinction of the wild Mexican gray wolf in both the US and Mexico. However, due to pressure from the ESA, the last 4 wild males and the very last female were captured and placed in a captive-breeding program. Through a breeding registry, biologists hoped to preserve the genetic diversity of these animals and save the unique subspecies.

While the Mexican gray faced oblivion, the northern gray wolf took a huge step on the road to recovery. The first pack of wild wolves crossed the border from Canada into Glacier National Park, Montana. In the celebration, this first wild group of wolves to return to the US became known as the Magic Pack.

Red Wolves - 1990’s

The red wolf is a completely separate species from the gray wolf, being smaller with reddish coloration and having the appearance of a gray wolf-coyote hybrid. In historic times, the red wolf is thought to have lived across the East Coast and Southeast of the US. However, like the gray, the red wolf was hunted to extinction throughout its range. By 1980, red wolves survived only in captivity, their breeding highly regulated in order to preserve precious genetic diversity. By 1990, the first red wolves were reintroduced to North Carolina.

At the same time the red wolves were making a comeback with the help of humans, gray wolves continued to do it on their own. The Great Lakes population continued to grow, spreading into northern Wisconsin. By 1990, Montana's Magic Pack had company in the form of other wolf packs migrating down from Canada, as well as the first wild packs formed by wolves born on Glacier National Park soil. The first substantial reports of wolf sightings in the Cascade Mountains of Washington State started coming in, and the US could now boast a possible population of wolves in seven states including Alaska.

Northern Rockies Reintroduction - 1995 & 1996

Perhaps the most monumental move in gray wolf policy over the past century was the decision to reintroduce wolves to Yellowstone National Park and Idaho. After years of political battles and local grassroots efforts to win over support from area ranchers, 31 Canadian gray wolves were released into Yellowstone and 23 into the Frank Church Wilderness of Idaho.

The reintroduced wolves in Idaho were "hard released" directly into the wild from their transportation crates. One female traveled over 60 miles in the first day looking for her Canadian home. In cooperation with the US government, the Nez Perce Nation took over the reintroduction effort.

Sixty years after the last two wolves were killed in Yellowstone, the first wild caught Canadian wolves destined for reintroduction entered the park. After the wolves spent three months in acclimation pens in the backcountry, the alpha male of the Crystal Creek pack worked up the courage to take his first steps of freedom in the US. Despite the disappointment of another wolf’s illegal murder outside of Redlodge, MT, biologists were overjoyed to find that it had fathered the first litter of wild wolf pups born in Yellowstone.

Today: Thirteen States and Counting

Over the past 30 years, the wild wolf population in the US had grown from less than 300 to over 4,000. Even two decades ago, it looked like wolves would probably disappear forever from the plains and forests of this country. However, as people have searched harder and harder for a true connection to nature, we have slowly learned the value of wild ecosystems and the animals that live in them. In the 13 years since wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone, we have learned that wolves are a keystone species that is an essential part of the “trophic cascade” and a balanced earth. 1998 saw the controversial reintroduction of Mexican gray wolves to New Mexico and Arizona. The red wolf population in North Carolina is continuing to grow. Yellowstone can boast a population of over 300 wolves, reaching its recovery goals. The Great Lakes’ wolves may soon be removed from the ESA because they are so abundant. In just the past year, there have been reports of wild wolves in Oregon, Utah, Washington, and even Maine.

The Future

The recovery of wolves to the US is no longer a dream, but we do have much work left to do...
It is estimated that over a million wild wolves once roamed across North America. Although we will never see numbers that high again, wild wolves have made a remarkable comeback over the past 50 years. If recovery efforts continue, we may one day see wild wolves successfully coexisting with humans in over twenty states. As the years pass, we are learning that it is possible to live in close contact with wild wolves. With cooperation from politicians, environmentalists and ranchers, we may not be made to chose between people, wildlife and cattle... the wild habitat that is currently left across the nation could support all three. As it stands, wolf depredations on livestock are lower than expected and wolf-watching brings in much needed revenue to rural areas. In only the past few months, wild wolves have been removed from the ESA in the Northern Rockies because the reintroduction was so successful. Now, the challenge will be to find a balance between hunting and preservation that prevents their return to the Endangered Species List and addresses the needs of local ranchers.

Recently, the Wildlands Project has proposed a plan called “rewilding” America. Under this plan, the less populated and primarily unused sections of the U.S. would be returned to its natural state. With fences removed and bison and elk allowed to roam at will, this could mean a huge recovery for wolves. Please see www.wildearth.org for more details. Despite the great challenges facing such a plan, we all like to dream of the day when wolves and people can live in harmony across all of North America.