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Gray Wolf

Howling at the moon, lurking in the darkness, haunting fairytales—the wolf has not exactly gotten good PR over the ages. Not surprisingly, support for its protection has been uneven. The gray wolf, originally the most widespread mammal in the world, has largely disappeared from Western Europe and Mexico. Elsewhere, its range has shrunk.

Federal and private poisoning as well as hunting and trapping pushed the gray wolf to the brink of extinction in the United States, too. After being listed as federally endangered, populations rebounded. But more trouble ensued: Throughout much of its range, the wolf was removed from the Endangered Species List and some state governments responded with plans to reduce their populations further. In Idaho, the government plans to cut reintroduced wolf numbers by 80 percent.

Contrary to the popular image of the “lone wolf,” gray wolves are actually highly social, living in packs of 2 to 36 individuals, made up of family units. The pack works together on a hunt, following the lead of the alpha female and male (mother and father wolves). The alpha pair also chooses the den sites and establishes their pack’s territory. If food is adequate, a pack may use the same range for many generations.

There are about 5,000 gray wolves in the lower 48 states, including 1,600 in the Rocky Mountains. An estimated 7,000 live in Alaska and as many as 50,000 live in Canada. Other remnant wolf populations are scattered in Poland, Scandinavia, Russia, Portugal, Spain, and Italy.

Fast Facts

Scientific NameCanis lupus
  • The gray wolf is widely recognized as the ancestor of all domestic dog species, including dingos.
  • Wolves typically eat large mammals such as elk, moose, caribou, and deer but will eat almost anything, including rodents, beaver, and even garbage.
  • Gray wolf pups are born blind, deaf and unable to walk. They depend on their mothers for warmth. All members of the pack help care for them.
  • Wolves’ complex vocalizations include barks, whines, growls and howls.
  • Wolves were exterminated from the British Isles in the 1700s and nearly disappeared from Japan and Greenland in the 20th century.
  • For many people wolves symbolize the spirit of wilderness, though for others they represent a persistent pest.

Challenges

Westward expansion across the U.S. in the 1800s led to the near elimination of many of the large mammals that wolves traditionally preyed upon, including bison, deer, elk, and moose. With their hunting stocks depleted, wolves turned to domestic livestock for sustenance, and as a result, bounty hunters began tracking down and killing them. Wolves were poisoned, shot, trapped and dug out of their dens. Poisoned carcasses were left out for them, often to the detriment of other wild animals, including bald eagles, foxes, and bears. This coordinated elimination of the species continued until the 1960s. By the time the gray wolf was protected in 1973, only a few hundred remained, all in northern Minnesota. Today the gray wolf is listed as a species of Least Concern by IUCN.

Continued threats include competition with humans for livestock, especially in developing countries; public concern about the threats wolves pose; and fragmentation of habitat.

WCS Responds

WCS-North America conservationists work to preserve and connect wild habitats for gray wolves and other large mammals, and to educate the public about the role of predators in the ecosystem. WCS-Canada recently helped to expand the wildlife haven Nahanni National Park—a haven for wolves and other animals of the boreal forest—by more than six times its former size, to 12,000 square miles.

In 2005, WCS researcher Dr. Kim Berger undertook a three-year study to explore and document the complex relationships between predators and their prey in Grand Teton National Park. She found that the presence of wolves actually benefits vulnerable pronghorn antelope fawns, as healthy wolf packs keep away a more menacing pronghorn predator—the coyote. As smaller carnivores, coyotes routinely prey upon antelope fawn. Wolves reduce coyote numbers by killing them outright and causing them to leave wolf territories. Only 10 percent of young antelope survive in areas that lack wolves but have higher densities of coyotes. In areas where wolves are abundant, 34 percent of the fawns survive. This work to understand predator dynamics is critical to conserving the pronghorn, our continent’s fastest land animal.

From the Newsroom

Apex Predators: A Scary LossJuly 20, 2011

In a recent study, WCS Conservationist Joel Berger concludes that the loss of large predators in the wild may be humankind’s most pervasive influence on nature.

Striking Balance in the Arctic October 13, 2010

WCS asks the government to fully protect “Special Areas” in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve for caribou and migratory birds.

The Wild West: A Pronghorn's Incredible Journey September 22, 2010

WCS embarks on a huge study to ensure safer journeys for pronghorn through their migratory corridor in the American West.

An Arctic Adventure: Day 8June 18, 2010

This week, WCS scientists are trekking across the vast and remote Alaskan Arctic and deep into the National Petroleum Reserve to explore how best to conserve Arctic wildlife in the midst of expanding energy development. WCS conservationist Steve Zack is chronicling the trip for the New York Times' Scientists at Work blog.

Unafraid of the Big, Bad WolfMarch 4, 2008

As western states debate removing the gray wolf from the Endangered Species List, WCS researcher Dr. Kim Berger speaks out on behalf of an unsuspecting wolf ally: the pronghorn antelope.

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