Few animals evoke the wild like wolves. Majestic, rangy and highly social, wolves play a crucial role in driving evolution and helping calibrate nature’s complex relationships.
Once — before bounties, a federal extermination program and expansive human settlement — wolves roamed freely throughout most of the United States. Scientists estimate there were once some 2 million of the animals living wild in North America.
By the 1960s, when wolves were finally protected under a precursor to the Endangered Species Act, they had been exterminated from all of the contiguous United States except a portion of Minnesota and Isle Royale National Park — victims of an unwillingness, on the part of the livestock industry, to coexist.
Gray wolf recovery under Endangered Species Act protection was a success in significant but limited regions. While it lasted it ensured, for two of the three gray wolf populations in the contiguous states, steady increases in numbers and distribution, along with benefits to their ecosystems. In the Great Lakes, wolf populations grew from a few hundred in the 1970s to around 5,000; they expanded their range from Minnesota to Wisconsin and Michigan. In the northern Rocky Mountains, natural migration from Canada and reintroduction to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho led to more than 1,700 wolves across Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Washington and Oregon. In the Southwest, just five surviving Mexican gray wolves were saved between 1977 and 1980 and bred in captivity; some of their progeny were reintroduced and now number a few dozen in the wild in Arizona and New Mexico.
Despite these substantial gains, the job of wolf recovery is far from over. Wolves need connected populations for genetic sustainability, and natural ecosystems need wolves; yet today wolves occupy less than 5 percent of their historic range.
But on June 7, 2013, the Obama administration announced plans to prematurely strip Endangered Species Act protections from gray wolves across most of the lower 48 states — plans that will abruptly end one of America’s most important species recovery programs. The proposal concludes that wolf protection in the continental United States, in place since 1978, is no longer needed, even though there are fledgling populations in places like the Pacific Northwest whose survival hinges on continued federal protection. The Center is doing everything within our power to stop that finalization.
Before that announcement, progress had already been arrested with the premature delisting of wolves in the northern Rockies and Great Lakes region, with no plan for recovery in broader areas and insufficient protections from local pressures to hunt or “control” wolves back to the brink of extinction.
In April 2011 Congress attached a rider to a must-pass budget bill that stripped Endangered Species Act protections from wolves in all of Montana and Idaho, the eastern third of Washington and Oregon, and a small portion of northern Utah — an unprecedented action that, for the first time in the history of the Act, removed a species from the endangered list by political fiat instead of science. Wolves were delisted in Wyoming, as well, in September 2012. The Fish and Wildlife Service also removed protections from wolves in the Great Lakes region. Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Minnesota and Wisconsin have begun public wolf hunting and/or trapping, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, cooperating with state agencies, is expanding its program of trapping, radio-collaring and releasing, then aerial gunning the pack-mates of these collared wolves — a program that, while wolves were protected by the Act, had been limited to those that preyed on livestock.
In the Southwest, Mexican gray wolves are undergoing inbreeding depression from small numbers, federal removal of genetically valuable wolves, and the Fish and Wildlife Service’s refusal, despite scientists’ urgent pleas, to release wolves into the wild. The inbreeding depression is lowering litter sizes and pup survival rates.
Since the Center’s inception, we have campaigned for wolves, adapting our efforts as the opportunities for recovery changed. We have taken the long view, even while addressing short-term threats.
Our 1990 lawsuit, with allies, to compel reintroduction of the Mexican gray wolf led to a 1993 settlement agreement that resulted in the 1998 reintroduction into the Apache and Gila national forests. The Center, founded in the Gila in 1989 and maintaining staff in the reintroduction area to the present day, monitors wolf and habitat management. We have vigorously challenged federal shooting and trapping of Mexican wolves and are pushing for the resumption of wolf releases from captivity to the wild. We've petitioned and/or sued for changes in wolf management, development of a new, science-based Mexican wolf recovery plan, and listing of the Mexican wolf as an endangered subspecies or population of the gray wolf to afford it the right to such a plan. We help organize public pressure on agencies and elected officials to provide maximal protection for the beleaguered Mexican wolves. We currently have two active lawsuits filed against the Fish and Wildlife Service and have warned the agency about a pending third.
In the northern Rocky Mountains, the Center’s four successful lawsuits with our allies delayed the removal of federal protections for wolves from April 2003, when first promulgated by the Bush administration, until May 2011, when protections were finally (though still prematurely) removed through an infamous congressional rider. That allowed the wolf population to grow by 1,000 animals during those eight years, from 761 to 1,774. The Center challenged the constitutionality of the rider in district and appeals courts and lost. Since then we have helped publicize the slaughter of northern Rockies wolves, as part of a long-term strategy of seeking congressional rescission of the harmful rider, and have filed suit to restore “endangered” protections to wolves in Wyoming, where the 2011 rider does not apply.
We have also stood up for protection of wolves in Washington, Oregon and California in a nascent and vulnerable population that emanated from wolves dispersing from the northern Rockies. In 2006, with all these wolves still listed as endangered, we successfully opposed issuance of a permit to allow killing wolves in Oregon on behalf of the livestock industry. After the 2011 delisting of most wolves in the state, the Center and allies successfully sued under state law to save the lives of two wolves that Oregon officials had ordered killed. In 2012 we helped kill an Oregon bill that would have overturned our success in court and allowed the wolves’ destruction. We also filed a scientific petition with California officials to place wolves on the state’s endangered list and prepare a recovery plan — and in early June 2014 the California Fish and Game Commission voted to protect wolves under the state Endangered Species Act, just hours after scientists confirmed that OR-7 — the wolf that wandered into California in late 2011 and returned periodically — sired pups in southern Oregon.
In the Midwest, as in the northern Rockies, multiple lawsuits filed by the Center and allies helped delay removal or reduction of protections from April 2003 until December 2011, allowing continued growth in the wolf population. In 2012 we filed a challenge to Minnesota’s wolf-hunting season; the lawsuit remains active. In a groundbreaking victory for Great Lakes wolves, they were again granted Endangered Species Act protection in late 2014.
Since the original wolf recovery plans were written in the 1980s, we’ve learned much more about wolves’ behavior, ecology and needs. We know, for example, that returning wolves to ecosystems sets off a chain of events that benefits many species, including songbirds and beavers that gain from a return of streamside vegetation — which thrives in the absence of browsing elk that must move more often to avoid wolves — and pronghorn and foxes that are aided by wolves’ control of coyote populations.