A non-profit organization
Nature's Guardian is dedicated to helping preserve endangered species, like the Wolf. Most Native Americans and Eskimos revered the gray wolf, trying to emulate its cunning and hunting abilities. However, it was the belief by western settlers that the wolf caused widespread livestock losses that led to its near extinction in the lower 48 states in the early part of the 20th Century. Under large scale predator control programs, wolves were hunted and killed with more passion and zeal than any other animal in United States history.
Second only to humans in its adaptation to climate extremes, the gray wolf was equally at home in the deserts of Israel, the deciduous forests of Virginia, and the frozen Arctic of Siberia. Within the continental U.S., gray wolves formerly ranged from coast to coast and from Canada to Mexico.
Wolf groups, or packs, usually consist of a set of parents (alpha pair), their offspring, and other non-breeding adults. Wolves begin mating when they are 2 to 3 years old, sometimes establishing life-long mates. They dig a den or use an existing shelter or structure, sometimes with chambers and connecting tunnels, in which to rear their pups for the first 6 weeks of their lives.
An average of six pups are born in early spring. They depend completely on their mother's milk for the first month, then they are gradually weaned. By 7 to 8 months of age, when they are almost fully grown, the young wolves begin hunting with the adults. Often after 1 or 2 years of age, a young wolf will leave and try to form its own pack.
Wolf packs usually hunt within a specific territory. Territories may be as large as 50 square miles or even extend to 1,000 square miles depending on food availability. The wolf's great ability to hunt lies in its determination and capacity to seek out vulnerable prey. Wolves often cover large areas to do so, travelling as far as 30 miles in a day. Although they usually trot along at 5 mph, wolves can attain speeds as high as 45 mph.
Indirectly, wolves support a wide variety of other animals. Ravens, foxes, wolverines, vultures, and even bears feed on the remains of animals killed by wolves. Wolf-kills have been found to be an important source of food for eagles.
Wolves are noted for their distinctive howl. To wolves, howling is simply a form of communication. Biologists do not know all of the reasons why wolves howl, but they may do so before and after a hunt, to sound an alarm, and to locate other members of the pack when separated. Wolves howl more frequently in the evening and early morning, especially during winter breeding and pup-rearing.
Early settlers moving westward severely depleted most populations of bison, deer, elk, and moose -- animals that were important prey for wolves. With little alternative, the wolf then turned to the sheep and cattle that had replaced its natural prey. To protect their livestock, ranchers and government agencies began a campaign to eliminate the wolf. Bounty programs, initiated in the 19th Century, continued as late as 1965, offering 20 to 50 per wolf. Wolves were trapped, shot from planes and snowmobiles, and hunted with dogs. Animal carcasses salted with strychnine were left out for wolves to eat. Unfortunately, this practice indiscriminately killed eagles, ravens, foxes, bears, and other animals which also fed on the poisoned carrion.
Today, about 2,000 wolves exist in Minnesota, fewer than 20 on Lake Superior's Isle Royale, about 60 in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, 40 to 50 in Wisconsin, and about 65 in Montana. Numbers are low but unknown in Idaho and Washington, and an occasional individual is seen in Wyoming, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Populations fluctuate due to food availability and strife within packs.
The gray wolf is listed under the Endangered Species Act as a threatened species in Minnesota, and as an endangered species elsewhere in the lower 48 states. "Endangered" means a species is considered in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range, and "threatened" means a species is considered in danger of becoming endangered. In Alaska, wolf populations number 5,900 to 7,200 and are not considered endangered or threatened.
In Minnesota, where the largest wolf population in lower 48 states resides, a special state program provides compensation for livestock confirmed to be killed by wolves, and a federal program provides for trapping of individual wolves guilty of depredation.
Wolf recovery and management are very polarized, controversial, and emotional issues often involving people's attitudes more than wolves themselves. Attitudes are often based on inaccurate information, making wolf management perhaps more difficult than any other wildlife management program.
For example, some people continue to carry the unfounded fear that wolves attack people or threaten outdoor activities. In fact, wolves generally avoid humans. There are no verified reports of healthy wolves ever seriously injuring a human in North America.
Yellowstone National Park has been at the center of debates over the wolf. Wolves were deliberately extirpated from this park in 1930. Today, the wolf is the only species missing from the Yellowstone ecosystem -- one of the largest relatively intact wilderness areas in the lower 48 states. Some people feel that reintroduction of the wolf would complete the ecological picture. Others are concerned about potential effects on livestock and big game animals. It is believed the large herds of elk and deer within Yellowstone would provide more than enough food for the wolves that typically prefer wild game over livestock. However, eventually some wolves would try to live outside the park and prey on livestock.
After years of comprehensive study and planning, in 1994 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began an effort to reintroduce gray wolves into Yellowstone and U.S. Forest Service lands in central Idaho. The Service had previously identified these areas as necessary for wolf recovery, as well northwest Montana, where wolf packs have already become established as wolves from Canada have expanded their range.
Part of the reintroduction effort involves capturing a group of wolves from Alberta and British Columbia, Canada, and bringing them to the U.S. for the reintroduction. When these wolves are reintroduced, they will be designated as "non-essential experimental" under the Endangered Species Act, including provisions to allow control of wolves under certain circumstances; for example, if they are determined to be preying on livestock or if wild populations of deer, elk, and other large game are severely affected by wolf predation. A private organization has established a fund to compensate landowners who suffer losses to wolves.
Under the Fish and Wildlife Service's plan for wolf recovery, reintroduction would begin in 1994 and last for 3 to 5 years. Wolf populations would be expected to recover by 2002, at which time the Fish and Wildlife Service would propose to remove the wolf from the list of endangered and threatened species.
Wolf recovery efforts represent an opportunity to redress past mistakes
and enhance our understanding not only of the wolf itself, but also the
complex interactions among species in their natural environment.