Shrinking habitat, hostility from human
adversaries and dwindling funds for recovery
efforts all conspire to keep the future of wolves in the United States uncertain.
But wolves have public support on their side. That is reason enough
to believe that one day our mountains, prairires, deserts
and coasts will again echo with the howls of America's wolves.
First criminalized, now romanticized, wolves have long occupied a vivid place in Americans' imaginations. Hunted to near extinction in the continental United States by the mid-1900s, these symbols of wildness are -- thanks to the protection of the Endangered Species Act -- making a comeback. Wolf advocates have an ambitious dream: to return America's wolves to their former ranges and make the ecosystems that once supported them complete again.
"Today, biologists know that wolves and other large predators are ecologically essential to entire systems," explains Sierra Club Board member Dave Foreman. "In addition to being critical players in various eat-or-be-eaten schemes, large carnivore are valuable as 'umbrella species.' Simply put, if enough habitat is protected to maintain viable populations of top predators like wolves, then most of the other species in the region will also be protected."
Yet anti-wolf forces -- dominated by the livestock industry -- decry wolf reintroduction as ridiculous at best, dangerous at worst. They scoff at the notion of sinking millions of dollars into bringing wolves back after spending millions to exterminate them.
In some cases wolves are not waiting for humans to decide their fate. The howl of the timber wolf is once again ringing through the north Michigan woods, and biologists say the wolf population of Minnesota -- the timber wolf's stronghold in the lower 48 states -- has reached about 1,700.
A hotly contested reintroduction program of Canadian gray wolves into Yellowstone National Park and Idaho thrilled the public when it started last year. Though the program itself is now endangered, the relocated wolves -- and a first generation of pups -- are thriving.
Captive-bred red wolves, which disappeared from their Southeastern habitat more than a decade ago, have recently made a Fish and Wildlife Service-assisted comeback in North Carolina marked by bitter disputes and legislative battles between pro- and anti-wolf forces.
The Mexican wolf, which once roamed Southwest deserts, now exists in the United States only in captivity. In the face of yet more conflict, the federal government is tentatively planning to reintroduce captive-bred Mexican wolves in the region.
The Sierra Club enthusiastically supports the reintroduction of wolves to their native habitats. What follows is a species-by-species report on the status of the Sierra Club's efforts to bring them back to their former hunting grounds.
Gray Wolves: Making Yellowstone Whole Again
Just over a year ago, 29 Canadian gray wolves made history when they were captured and transported to the United States for release in Yellowstone National Park and the wilds of Idaho. The journey was no less precarious than the pioneering wolf recovery program itself.
Even after they had arrived in their new home, the wolves were forced to wait in small metal cages while a judge considered a request from livestock producers and their allies in Congress to scrap the plan. Finally, the Idaho wolves were set free; the Yellowstone wolves -- after a stint in large pens where one pair successfully mated -- were freed several weeks later.
Wolf advocates had turned out at a series of public hearings about the wolf reintroduction program in 1994, outnumbering opponents at all but one.
"The hearings proved there was strong local support for the program," recalls Ralph Maughan, a longtime Club activist and vice-chair of the Eastern Idaho Group. "In Idaho Falls, where some thought anti-wolf sentiment would prevail, 45 people spoke in favor of the plan and only three spoke against it."
But in a move protested by the Sierra Club, all of the wolves were labeled "experimental non-essential" to placate livestock producers. Though the wolves are treated as fully protected endangered species within the boundaries of land managed by the Park Service, once they move outside of those boundaries they can be legally killed by ranchers who catch them chasing or attacking livestock. Ranchers who do lose livestock to wolves are compensated from a private fund. So far, only two sheep have been killed by the wolves.
At press time, a second relocation of around 30 Canadian wolves was underway. Activists say the future of wolf recovery may be pinned on this new group of wolves, because the recovery program itself, which was originally meant to function for at least five years, is in trouble.
"The 1994 elections did much to re-energize anti-wolf, anti-endangered species and anti-environmental forces throughout the West," says Betsy Buffington, conservation assistant in the Club's Northern Plains field office.
Anti-wolf leader Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) engineered a 40 percent cut in the program's funding last year. Club activists say the cut -- combined with a Congress hostile to spending in general -- may spell doom for future reintroduction efforts.
"This is probably going to be the last year of the program," says Maughan. "But as long as the Yellowstone wolves continue to reproduce successfully and the Idaho wolves begin to do the same, they'll be well on their way to recovery.
"The program has defied many of the predictions that surrounded it when it first started," says Maughan. "Not nearly as many wolves have been killed as predicted. Nine pups have been born, which is way ahead of schedule. The livestock depredation predicted by the livestock industry hasn't happened. I think a lot of one-time opponents have come to accept that having wolves around is not as bad as they thought."
What you can do: Tell your representatives and senators that you support the reintroduction program, emphasizing its success. Do the same in a letter to the editor.
For cyberspace updates on the program, check out the wolf Web page at:
Red Wolves: A Captive-Bred Comeback
To bring back the red wolf of the Southeast, biologists could not use the same strategy as their colleagues in the West. No wild red wolves roam Canada or anyplace else: In 1980, the species was declared extinct in the wild. But a few captive individuals bred successfully, and in the mid-1980s biologists began releasing red wolves into North Carolina's Alligator River Refuge.
Since then, cheered by a majority of North Carolinians, the wolves have been making a halting comeback. Their recovery, however, is stymied by anti-wolf sentiment in Congress and state legislatures and from some private property owners.
"The program went smoothly at first, because it was implemented on public land and the Fish and Wildlife Service had a good public education effort," says Bill Holman, the Sierra Club's North Carolina state lobbyist. "But just as the agency slowed its public outreach, the wolves began spreading onto private land and the program became politically controversial."
Red wolves primarily eat small game such as nutria, a large South American rodent that has spread throughout the Southeast. There are no documented cases of red wolves attacking livestock or, for that matter, people. Yet hostility toward the red wolf persists.
Indeed, despite the fact that the wolves have "experimental" status that allows landowners to shoot them if they appear to be attacking livestock or people, the North Carolina state Legislature has passed laws that allow citizens in four counties to shoot red wolves if they believe the animals are threatening people or property.
Club activists say the anti-wolf laws are not directed solely at the wolves themselves, but also at the federal government. "Part of the controversy over the wolves stems from a swelling of anti-federal sentiment in parts of North Carolina," says Molly Diggins, the North Carolina Chapter conservation chair.
Nowhere was that more apparent than at an April 1995 combined congressional field hearing in New Bern, N.C., on the Endangered Species Act and wetlands. "The ESA portion of the hearing was essentially a platform for complaints against the red wolf program," says Diggins.
For example, though red wolves are reclusive animals that weigh between 40 and 80 pounds, one speaker at the hearing, coaxed by Rep. Helen Chenoweth (R-Idaho), claimed to have been followed by an "evil-looking," 200-pound red wolf.
"The Sierra Club joined forces with other environmental groups across the state to hold a media event at the hearing and to pack the meeting hall," says Diggins.
Politics aside, red wolves face another problem that their relatives in the West don't: not enough room to roam. The heavily developed Eastern Seaboard does not readily accommodate the wolves' growing population. To help the animals repopulate other portions of their former range, biologists have begun releasing red wolves in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
What you can do: Tyrell and Dare counties, where most of North Carolina's red wolves live, are marketing themselves as ecotourism destinations. Call North Carolina's Division of Travel and Tourism at 1-800-VISIT-NC expressing your interest in seeing North Carolina's wolves.
Mexican Wolves: Will El Lobo Return?
Wild Mexican wolves -- a subspecies of the gray wolf -- are extinct in the United States, although occasional unconfirmed sightings are reported in Mexico. In captive breeding facilities in the Southwest, the last Mexican wolves in this country await their fate as controversy rages over their reintroduction.
"We're at a critical point in this program," says Bobbie Holaday, a Sierra Club member and executive director of Preserve Arizona's Wolves (PAWs). "While polls show strong public support for wolf reintroduction, powerful extractive and ranching industries oppose it. We need all the support we can get."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently revising its draft environmental impact statement for the plan, which proposes to release Mexican wolves into New Mexico and Arizona. Texas, which was originally slated to participate in the program, has refused, although Texans have shown strong support for reintroducing wolves to Big Bend National Park. The Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to release a final environmental impact statement this spring.
Last fall, Club activists turned out in force in all three states at public hearings on the recovery plan. Paul Pierce, the former chair of the Grand Canyon Chapter, helped coordinate a large demonstration at the Phoenix, Ariz., hearing. "The word was the ranching industry was going to make a lot of anti-wolf noise at the hearing, but not many ranchers showed up," says Pierce. "We had a huge showing of support: for instance, during the rally -- which was covered by the local television station -- a whole busload of howling activists from Tucson pulled up.
"The clear and simple fact is, poll after poll shows the people in this state -- both urbanites and rural folk -- want the wolf back on their public lands," adds Pierce. "It's because the ranching industry has basically controlled politics on public lands in this state since the 1800s that the will of the people is not being implemented."
What you can do: Write to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt urging him to support reintroduction of the Mexican wolf into the best habitat available: White Sands, N.M., the Blue Range, Ariz., and -- as a possible third reintroduction site -- Big Bend National Park, Texas. Write him at: U.S. Dept. of the Interior, 1849 C St., N, Room 5555, Washington, DC 20240.
Up to Top