The Act of Saving the Wolf

The Act of Saving the Wolf

Kim Mitchell

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the wolf. The relationship can be compared to the protection and guidance provided by a guardian to a child. Protection came in the form of shielding it from harm, and guidance came in the form of the Rocky Mountain and Eastern Timberwolf Recovery Plans. After near extinction in the conterminous 48 States, the gray wolf (Canis lupus) population is well on the way to achieving recovery. Recovery goals are nearing fulfillment and the wolf’s future now looks bright. Recovery efforts in the Midwest, the focus of this article, highlight this remarkable comeback story.

Legal protection against killing or harming wolves was perhaps the most effective strategy for wolf recovery in the Midwest. Even though State law in Wisconsin and Michigan already protected wolves prior to 1973, the year the ESA was passed, those State provisions had taken effect too late. By the time Wisconsin gave the wolf protection in 1957, the species already had been extirpated from the State (Wydeven 1997). Michigan followed suit in 1965 when only a few wolves remained in the Upper Peninsula and an isolated population existed on Isle Royale (Hammill 1997). In Minnesota, a bounty on wolves continued until 1965* Between 1965 and 1974, Minnesota had an open season on the species and the State’s Department of Natural Resources killed wolves under a Directed Predator Control Program. It was estimated that with the control program and other wolf kills, about 250 individuals were taken in Minnesota each year. During this time, the wolf population in Minnesota was considered stable to declining and was estimated to number about 450 to 700 animals. The State’s control program and open season continued until May 1974, when the gray wolf gained protection under the ESA.

Under legal protection, wolf numbers in northeastern Minnesota began to increase. At the same time, the wolf began to reoccupy other parts of its former range. Wolves are now present in all areas of presumed suitable habitat in Minnesota and are extending into areas previously thought unsuitable. They are now resident in about the one-third of the State. Additionally, wolves have moved back into Wisconsin and Michigan, and occasional dispersing wolves are detected in both North and South Dakota.

In addition to providing protection, the ESA required that a recovery plan be developed. The goal of the plan was to identify conservation actions needed to establish a viable wolf population that would no longer need ESA protection. The development of the plan was a significant strategy in itself because it focused time, money, and energy on the most important conservation actions. Critical tasks identified in the recovery plan included increasing public education programs on wolf ecology and restoration; monitoring wolf populations, habitat conditions, and prey base; maintaining suitable habitat and prey populations; and minimizing losses of domestic animals from wolf predation.

Research and monitoring were high priority recovery actions because an understanding of wolf ecology, population dynamics, and factors affecting range restriction and mortality were necessary to develop management strategies and to determine if they are working. During the monitoring studies, scientists documented the population increase and range expansion that occurred after 1973. They also observed responses to population changes in the wolf’s prey base (principally deer). Additionally, researchers once thought that road density was a major factor in regulating population size and range, but monitoring showed that it is not as important as once believed. Researchers have also been surprised that the wolf has expanded into areas more populated and developed than many biologists would have expected. Thus, the wolf has shown that it is not strictly a wilderness species. This information is obviously necessary to formulate sound management plans, but it is also useful for the next important strategy: public education.

A strong public education program was identified as an important recovery action, and it is easy to see why. Many people have strong emotional feelings about wolves but lack an ecological understanding of this animal. Groups representing each side in the wolf debate disseminate a great deal of information about wolves, much of it misleading or false. The recovery plan recognized that a factual public education program to explain wolf ecology and management was important so that the public could understand the role of the wolf in its ecosystem, the wolf restoration process, and wolf management options.

As part of a wolf public education program, the FWS funded the Science Museum of Minnesota’s “Wolves and Humans” exhibit that was displayed across the country and is now permanently housed at the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minnesota. The center itself, designed to house the exhibit and other wolf education activities, also publishes and distributes its own magazine, International Wolf Additionally, the FWS purchased “wolf trunks,” or containers that include teaching curricula and props such as a wolf pelt, skulls of carnivores and herbivores, and casts of animal tracks. Workshops were held to instruct teachers on how to use the trunks to educate school children about wolf ecology. The trunks have been in wide circulation in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. The FWS has also prepared wolf fact sheets and submitted educational articles to magazines such as Ranger Rick and National Wildlife.

There is still a long way to go in providing scientifically sound information about wolf ecology, restoration, and management. However, a survey by Kellert (1986) found that, although misinformation on wolves and their ecology was still prevalent, about 75 percent of the Minnesota public had come to view the wolf favorably. Kellert (1990) also conducted a survey in Michigan and found similar results.

Another important part of the recovery program has been the control of wolf depredation on domestic animals. Depredation historically has been the primary cause of animosity towards the wolf. The recovery team believed from the beginning that depredation could increase as wolf numbers grew, and that a backlash of public resentment could result if this problem were not adequately addressed. According to Mech (1997), Poland has experienced three such cycles of wolf protection and persecution. Thus, the recovery team recognized that wolf recovery would require depredation control.

During the time that the wolf was listed as endangered in Minnesota, depredating wolves were trapped and moved to other areas. After the reclassification of the gray wolf to threatened in Minnesota in 1978, a depredation control program based on euthanizing trapped wolves was initiated. In Minnesota, when it appears that livestock have been lost to wolves, a biologist from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services staff goes to the site and confirms that the kill was due to a wolf. Sometimes, livestock assumed to be killed by wolves have actually been killed by coyotes or the animal was dead and the wolf was feeding on a carcass. However, when a livestock loss has been verified as a wolf kill, the farmer receives compensation from the State. Lethal depredation control measures are not used in neighboring States. Fortunately, in Michigan, only two cases of depredation have occurred since the wolf’s comeback. In Wisconsin, depredations are dealt with on a case-by-case basis. Wisconsin farmers have been reimbursed by the State for their losses and two wolves have been moved.

Currently, the wolf population in the western Great Lakes States is healthy, increasing in number, and expanding in range. Gray wolf numbers were estimated at the end of the 1997-98 winter to be 2,000 to 2,200 in Minnesota, 180 in Wisconsin, and 140 in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Isle Royale National Park, also in Michigan, contains an isolated population of 14 additional gray wolves. The wolf population increase and expansion has been so successful that the numerical criteria established in the recovery plan for reclassifying the wolf in the western Great Lakes States from endangered to threatened have been reached. In fact, if population trends continue, the numerical criteria for delisting the wolf in this region (a second viable wolf population of 100 or more animals for 5 successive years) will be reached in 1999. The other delisting criterion found in the recovery plan–that the survival of the wolf in Minnesota is assured–should be achieved with the State of Minnesota completes its wolf management plan early next year. This population rebound is due to the provisions of the ESA, a “caretaker” that protected and guided its charge to recovery.

Meanwhile, the recovery of the gray wolf in the Rocky Mountains continues to progress. Wolves from Canada began to colonize northwestern Montana in the early 1980’s and now number about 75 animals in 7 to 9 packs. In central Idaho, the 35 wolves from Canada introduced by the FWS in 1995 and 1996 have increased to about 70 wolves at least 6 packs. An estimated 30-40 pups were born in central Idaho this spring. The Idaho wolves are being managed by the Nez Perce Tribe with FWS funding. Finally, Yellowstone National Park, where 31 wolves from Canada were released in 1995 and 1996, now supports about 80 adult wolves in at least 8 packs. About 40 pups were born in this population also. So far, the Yellowstone wolves have remained primarily within the park boundaries. If the current breeding success and low mortality continue, recovery and delisting of the Rocky Mountain gray wolf could be achieved as early as the year 2002.

A 1997 court ruling against management of the Idaho and Yellowstone wolves as an experimental population has been appealed by the U.S. Department of Justice. Pending a final resolution, these wolves will continue to be managed under the experimental population rules, which were designed to promote greater public acceptance of endangered species reintroductions by allowing greater management flexibility.


Hammill, J.H. 1997. Wolf recovery in Michigan. Fact Sheet. International Wolf Center. Ely, MN.

Kellert, S.R. 1987. The public and the timber wolf in Minnesota. Proc. N. Am. Wildl. Nat. Res. Conf. 51:193-200.

Kellert, S.R. 1990. Public attitudes and beliefs about the wolf and its restoration in Michigan. Unpublished Report. Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, New Haven, Connecticut.

Mech, L.D. 1997. The challenge and opportunity of recovering wolf populations. Conservation Biology 9(2):1-9.

Wydeven, A.P. 1997. Wolfrecolonization in Wisconsin. Fact Sheet. International Wolf Center. Ely, MN.

Kim Mitchell is an Information and Education Coordinator with the FWS Endangered Species Division in Region 3.

COPYRIGHT 1998 U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group