The gray wolf is a member of the canine family. It lives throughout North America and consumes a varied diet of mid-sized animals such as deer. Like humans, gray wolves are amazingly adaptable and can live in many different climates and conditions. They used to live in most of the lower 48 states of the United States, but, by the early 1900s, the gray wolf had almost entirely disappeared from the lower 48 states. Because humans who settled the United States brought with them an intense hatred and fear of wolves, and because wolves can upset farmers by eating their livestock, human activity such as poisoning, trapping, and shooting wolves led to the almost complete extinction of the wolf in the United States.
Things began to get better for the gray wolf beginning in 1973 when Congress passed the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The ESA requires the Federal government to help endangered and threatened species (those species that will likely face extinction if no action is taken to help them) recover from their low numbers.
By 1978 the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) had listed the gray wolf as endangered throughout the lower 48 states of the United States, except in Minnesota, where the wolf was listed as threatened. Within the last ten years, with the help of the strict rules and successful reintroduction efforts, wolf numbers have greatly increased within the United States.
In 1982 Congress changed the Endangered Species Act to add a section that allows the Fisheries and Wildlife Service to take animals from where they live and move them to a new location in the hopes that they will reproduce there. The reintroduced populations are then called experimental populations. Experimental populations are treated as a threatened species, which means that special rules may be made for the population. These special rules can allow for such things as killing or wounding wolves, which would not be allowed if the species was designated as endangered. Congress added this section (Section 10(j)) to the ESA in order to lessen anger against reintroduction efforts. For example, a farmer is probably happier with wolves reintroduced into her area if she knows that she is allowed to kill a wolf seen attacking her animals. Even if this measure did help to lessen farmersí opposition, most ranchers and farmers are still against the reintroduction efforts because wolves sometimes kill their farm animals.
There are three Section 10(j) nonessential experimental populations in the lower United States today. One is in the greater Yellowstone area, one is in Central Idaho, and one is in New Mexico and Arizona. In 1995 and 1996, the FWS brought fourteen western Canadian gray wolves into Yellowstone Park, and seventeen more a year later. This population has been successful, growing to over 600 wolves. The rules for these experimental populations of wolves expressly allow a livestock producer to kill a wolf observed attacking livestock on her property so long as the killing is reported within 24 hours.
Mexican gray wolves are also being introduced in New Mexico and Arizona. The Mexican gray wolf program involves managed breeding of captive animals. As of August 2002, Mexican gray wolf numbers had increased to 247 animals. Releases continue every year in order to reach a goal of 100 wild animals. These wolves can also legally be killed by ranchers on private land if they are seen attacking livestock.
The experimental populations highlight but one of the issues in wolf protection. There is also great controversy over whether wolves should be listed as endangered or threatened or not listed at all, and how such determinations should be made. The status of wolves under the ESA is of great importance because that determines what people may and may not do to wolves.
The wolf is clearly doing much better than it was 50 years ago; there are now several healthy wolf populations, and wolf numbers have gone from a few hundred to a few thousand. But, how much wolf recovery is enough? Do we need more wolves or do we have enough already?
Controversy over the fate of the wolf is alive and well. Where do you stand on the issues? Do you agree with many ranchers and farmers who think that the best place for wolves is in zoos, because out in the wild they cause too much disruption when they kill farm animals? Do you agree with many environmentalists who think that putting the wolf back where it once roamed is good for ecosystem and human health because as a top predator, the wolf controls the numbers of grazers and herd animals such as elk and deer, and people then have the chance to see a wolf and hear its howl in the wild?
For a legal overview of the gray wolf, click here.
For an in-depth legal discussion, see the Detailed Discussion.