She was powerful, beautiful, intelligent and a ferociously adept hunter.
That is until 2012, when 832F — more commonly known as 06 for the year of her birth — became a flashpoint for the plight of gray wolves when she was legally shot dead outside the boundary of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming during a sanctioned wolf hunt. She was wearing a GPS research collar.
The alpha female of the visible Lamar Canyon Pack, 06 was able to take down an adult elk by herself and was also respected as a skilled mother, raising three litters of pups. A park visitor favorite, her untimely death was covered nationally and brought wolf recovery efforts to the nation’s attention.
For his part, the hunter who killed her felt justified taking out one of the animals he deemed responsible for the reduction of elk and other trophy game to hunt. And in 2018, one of 06’s offspring, wolf 926 — a striking alpha female nicknamed Spitfire — met a similar fate outside the park’s northeast entrance.
Both wolves — and many before and since — were caught in the crossfire between those committed to restoring the animals to their former landscapes and those fighting to retain a way of life they believe is negatively impacted by wolves.
At one time, there were an estimated two million gray wolves roaming the United States. By the 1960s, the population had dwindled to near extinction due to hunting, poisoning and trapping.
Today, because of reintroduction programs, natural migrations and legal protections, their numbers have increased. However, gray wolves still occupy only 10 percent of their former range. And their presence often brings controversy. Conservationists, ecologists and Native Americans support their return. Many ranchers, concerned about their livestock, oppose it. And there are hunters eager to play a part.
Reemergence Versus Recovery
In 1974, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed gray wolves as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (except in Alaska, where wolf numbers are stable). This meant the federal government, rather than individual states, was in charge of gray wolf recovery. Wolf populations nationwide increased their current numbers, which hover around 6,000. In October 2020, in response to those increasing numbers, gray wolves were removed from the Endangered Species list, allowing individual states to manage local wolf populations.
Authorities considered the gray wolf’s comeback a success. Conservationists, on the other hand, viewed the delisting as premature. And a single group was spared: due to their small numbers, Mexican gray wolves, a subspecies in Arizona and New Mexico, remain federally protected.
Are there more gray wolves today than there were before they were put on the Endangered Species list? Yes. Are the current population numbers sufficient to support viable, healthy wolf populations? Some say yes, some say no. Has the recovery of the gray wolf in the lower 48 been accomplished? The answer is complicated.
Western Great Lakes Regions Neighboring Wisconsin
Having always hosted a viable wolf population, Minnesota enjoys the distinction of being second only to Alaska in the number of wolves inhabiting the state. Population estimates for the last 20 years have exceeded 2,000.
Minnesota has held wolf hunts off and on over the years, and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is currently rewriting its wolf management plan. There are opposing bills in front of lawmakers. One would require a hunt. One would ban it. With the original wolf population goal of 1,600 met and exceeded, Minnesota has yet to decide how to proceed. A plan is expected to be ready this summer.
Gray wolves, native to Michigan and once present throughout the state, were virtually wiped out there by the 1960s. In 1965 they were granted full legal protection by the state legislature. And when the federal government listed the gray wolf as endangered, the recovery began in earnest.
By then, only six animals remained, along with a geographically isolated population on Isle Royale.
After attempts at human interventions in the ’70s, however, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources made the decision to let the wolf recovery play out unassisted. Wolves have emigrated from Minnesota, Canada and Wisconsin, and by the early 1990s there were around 20 animals. Today, there are close to 700 wolves in Michigan, where public support has contributed to their success.
Yet, in a catch-22, that success means the wolves are once again targets, with two state senators pushing to reinstitute wolf hunts this year as a means to maintain stable numbers and limit wolf-livestock conflicts. Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources is in the process of updating its wolf management plan by June 2022, and prefers to delay a hunt until that time.
Trophic Cascade in the Rockies
Nowhere have the benefits of the reintroduction of wolves as apex predators played out more spectacularly than at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.
Scientists and visitors to the park are witnessing a trophic cascade of beneficial ecological changes begun in 1995 with the federal reintroduction of gray wolves. Simply stated, wolves have helped reduce elk numbers and change elk grazing behavior. Nervous herds are pushed to keep moving, thus decreasing overly intense foraging of vegetation such as aspen and willow, particularly along river bottoms.
The rebound of the willows helps beavers. The beaver dams affect stream hydrology, which benefits fish and songbirds.
In addition, pronghorn antelope and foxes benefit from the wolves’ control of coyote populations.
“Prey densities, such as elk, are six times higher where there aren’t wolves,” says Dr. Shannon Barber-Meyer, a USGS Research Wildlife Biologist, who has studied wolves extensively. “And wolves kill inferior prey.”
Wolves also are good for the economy. Many people visit Yellowstone specifically to get a glimpse of these enigmatic creatures.
Still, recovery efforts in the surrounding states continue to suffer pushback.
Although there are around 300 wolves in Wyoming, where once there were tens of thousands, wolf hunts are allowed because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife considers that number sufficient evidence of recovery.
The same year wolves were released in Yellowstone, 15 gray wolves were reintroduced to central Idaho, with an additional 20 the following year. The population slowly grew and has been holding steady at about 1,500 for the past two years. But in April 2021, the legislature — bowing to pressure from the cattle industry — decided to allow a 90 percent reduction through hunting and trapping, reducing that population to 150. In addition, the new legislation allows limitless wolf kills by a single hunter and hunting from ATVs and snowmobiles.
Amaroq Weiss, a senior West Coast wolf advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, is appalled. “There is no justifiable reason to hunt them,” she says. “Wolves have the ability to self-regulate their own populations based on food availability and territorial disputes.”
Weiss says conflict can be dealt with in a number of non-lethal ways. Ranchers can use fladry — a line of brightly colored flags hung along a pasture’s perimeter, which wolves don’t like. They can introduce electric fencing, or fox lights that flash on and off randomly to mimic a person with a flashlight. “Most state agencies have proactive tools and will work with livestock owners to use and implement them. What it takes is a willing rancher,” she says.
In Montana, gray wolves, also known as timber wolves, were largely eradicated by the turn of the last century. Without formal reintroduction, wolves have repopulated the area, migrating down from Canada and expanding out from Yellowstone.
Statewide, their presence has been met with opposition from hunters, who view them as competitors for big game, and ranchers, who fear for their livestock. Montana joins other states such as Idaho in the passage of new legislation that permits hunting at night with lights and night vision scopes, as well as use of bait in traps. And like Idaho, Montana has removed limits on the number of wolf kills by an individual hunter.
By contrast, Colorado will soon join the reintroduction effort for the first time, and recently passed a measure mandating that Colorado Parks and Wildlife create a plan for the restoration and management of the gray wolf by the end of 2023. The hope is that by early involvement of stakeholders, the state can avoid some of the problems other reintroduction programs have wrought.
The Pacific Northwest Region
The repopulation of gray wolves into Oregon and Washington has occurred naturally in the past decade as populations from Canada and Idaho dispersed and took up residence. Today there are around 145 animals living in Washington and about 173 in Oregon. The hope is that the expansion will continue, toward the Cascade Range of western Washington and Oregon.
In 2011, a wolf named Journey traveled from Oregon into California, the first wolf seen in the Golden State since 1924. His foray made the current Lassen Pack possible, though state research indicates the pack may only number six wolves. That number could grow. California has one of the most robust state endangered species act, which only allows a wolf to be killed in the defense of human life.
Despite these strides, wolf poaching in Oregon remains a problem. And because a wolf pack is kin-based, the impact on that pack when a wolf is killed through poaching or hunting “depends on the status of the wolf that was killed,” says Barber-Meyer. “Was it a pup? A breeder? A helper? The timing of the kill, and how many are left in the pack, are also important. If it’s a young wolf, maybe the pack isn’t all that affected. If it’s a breeder, it can be a bigger deal.
“It comes down to specifics,” she adds. “At the population level, a certain number of harvests won’t affect the numbers.”
Arizona and New Mexico
The Mexican wolf — a smaller, genetically distinct subspecies of gray wolf — is native to southeastern Arizona and southern New Mexico, as well as northern Mexico. And although gray wolves in the lower 48 states were removed from the Endangered Species List last year, the 186 Mexican gray wolves in Arizona and New Mexico retained their status.
Aggressively hunted, poisoned and trapped, Mexican gray wolves had all but disappeared by the 1950s. Their story folds into a larger narrative found throughout the West that pits ranchers against environmentalists and the federal government.
Federal officials in charge of wolf management find themselves in a bind: Conservationists don’t think they are doing enough to aid recovery, and ranchers think the government is interfering too much.
Elk, mule deer and white-tailed deer are among known prey for Mexican wolves, but they can and do prey on livestock at times.
Megan Richardson, a ranch owner in New Mexico’s Catron County, has zero use for reintroduced wolves. “I have a problem with the fact that they are releasing wolves who were raised in cages and don’t know how to hunt [wildlife],” she says.
Though Weiss of the Center for Biological diversity maintains that it’s rare for wolves to attack livestock — and can quote statistics to back it up — Richardson says they lost 15 calves and cows in four days last year. “And we don’t get reimbursed for predations,” she adds.
“People are passionate about wolves, and it’s either one extreme or the other. There is no in-between,” says Dr. Brady McGee, Mexican Wolf Recovery Coordinator for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Albuquerque, who oversees the recovery effort in Arizona, New Mexico, and into Mexico.
He adds that there are indeed a number of programs to which ranchers can apply for reimbursement of lost cattle at fair market value. “We’re trying to balance recovery while reducing livestock conflicts,’ he says. But, “There’s not a rancher out there who likes wolves.”
With just a small number of wolves constituting the genetic range of the current population, inbreeding is a concern. One way the recovery program addresses that issue is by cross fostering — slipping captive-born pups into dens with wild ones when quite young.
“Managing for genetic diversity isn’t usually a problem because wolves naturally disperse,” Barber-Meyer says. “However, with the small founding number of Mexican gray wolves, everything exists on a finer scale. Every wolf matters that much more. A disease could be catastrophic.”
According to the recovery plan finalized in 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife goal is an average of 320 Mexican wolves in the U.S. over an eight-year period and a second population in Mexico of about 200. “We are at about 186 wolves in Arizona and New Mexico per an end of 2020 count,” says McGee. MKE
Wolves in Wisconsin
By Kathy McMahon and Don Butler
In February — just over a month after wolves were delisted from the federal protection list — Wisconsin hunters killed 218 wolves in 60 hours, aided by dogs, cable restraints and leg-hold traps, and far exceeding the intended quota of 119 prior to its early shutdown.
Per a 2012 state law, an annual wolf hunt must be held if the animals aren’t under federal protection. (Of note: Wisconsin is the only state that mandates a wolf hunt.) A November 2021 hunt was in the planning stages by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, but, forced by a lawsuit brought by the Kansas-based hunting advocacy group Hunters Nation, the DNR held the hunt without input from the Chippewa Indians, per treaty agreements. And 2,380 hunting permits were issued — nearly twice the number of the estimated 2020 Wisconsin wolf population.
Prior to the hunt, population estimates hovered around 1,000. In the face of public skepticism, Hunter Nation claimed to be “proud of the effort we undertook that allowed the statutorily required wolf hunt to move forward,” per its website. The Chippewa tribe voiced its concerns, as the culture considers the wolf sacred. Tribes are given their own wolf kill quota, but often use their allotment to protect the wolves rather than kill them.
The result of the hunt was a nearly 20 percent loss of the state’s wolf population in about three days.
Facts Versus Future
“This hunt represents an unprecedented and extreme departure from sound, science-based wildlife practices on the part of Wisconsin DNR and an insult to science, democracy, and good conscience,” said Elizabeth Ward, director of the Sierra Club’s Wisconsin chapter, in a statement on the club’s website.
The DNR is evaluating the February wolf season from a biological and a regulatory lens, an agency spokesman tells MKE Lifestyle. “The season took place under circumstances much different than the three previous wolf seasons that occurred in Wisconsin from 2012 to 2014, and from the wolf season planned for this fall,” the spokesman notes.
“From a biological perspective, the wolf population remains healthy and secure, and the DNR will continue to rigorously monitor the population to ensure the population remains sustainable,” the spokesman continues. “From a regulatory perspective, many aspects of the wolf season are identified in state statute and outside of the authority of the DNR to change. However, there are some items that can be addressed, such as a reducing the time for hunters to report their harvest and reducing the number of harvest authorizations per quota, and these items continue to be evaluated and discussed for improving the DNR’s ability to manage the overall harvest.”
The DNR is also trying to address widely reported fallacies that may be muddying the waters, the spokesman says.
“These misconceptions include everything from how and why the wolf hunt takes place to the different influences wolves have on the landscapes in which they occur,” the spokesman says. “Unfortunately, much of this misinformation is driven by different groups with various underlying motivations regarding wolves. Regarding these motivations, we would offer the following quote by Dr. L. David Mech, preeminent scientific authority on wolves: ‘The wolf is neither a saint nor a sinner except to those who want to make it so.’”
The Fall 2021 Wolf Hunt and Beyond
Currently, the DNR is planning a wolf hunt from Nov. 6, 2021 to Feb. 28, 2022, using feedback from a 2021 Wolf Harvest Advisory Committee that will consider the current management plan, the state statute and the February 2021 season report.
The advisory committee represents governmental and non-governmental agencies, tribal interests and conservation groups. The group has met twice this year, most recently in June, to provide the DNR with input for the development of the fall 2021 wolf harvest quota. And in late May, the DNR website solicited public feedback and opinions on wolf management objectives.
“All of this will be considered, along with relevant scientific research, as we move forward with planning for the fall wolf season,” says a DNR spokesman. A wolf quota recommendation is expected to be submitted to the DNR board for approval by August, the spokesman says.
And in a separate process, the committee will gather information to update the project detailed on the DNR wolf management plan webpage, with a goal to present to the Natural Resources Board in June 2022.
“The DNR is committed to maintaining a healthy wolf population in Wisconsin, providing assistance with resolving and preventing wolf conflict, and providing sustainable opportunities to harvest wolves through a regulated season within current state law,” the DNR spokesman says. MKE
To learn more about the plan, the process or to get involved, see the DNR’s wolf management plan page at dnr.wisconsin.gov/topic/wildlifehabitat/wolfmanagementplan.