Most wolves in the continental United States soon will be off federal assistance.
For more than 300 years, trappers and settlers did their best to exterminate wolves, for their pelts and to protect livestock. They were so successful that only a few hundred gray wolves were left in the lower 48 states when they were listed as an endangered species in 1973.
Now the wolves are back, with roughly 6,000 in the contiguous United States and 7,700 to 11,200 in Alaska. The Obama administration has declared all but two small populations — Mexican gray wolves in New Mexico and Arizona and red wolves in North Carolina — fully recovered. On Oct. 1, Wyoming will become the fifth state with a significant wolf population to legalize hunting.
Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe called the wolf comeback “a great success,” but it means that wolves are now fair game, and he noted that not everyone likes the idea of killing them.
“When you look at our friends in the environmental movement, there are a lot of people out there who just don’t like the idea of animals being shot,” Ashe said. “I understand that, but if you look at the Endangered Species Act, it’s not an animal-protection act. It’s a law designed to prevent the extinction of a species.”
But how many wolves are enough?
The Fish and Wildlife Service approved plans in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming that require them to maintain a minimum of 450 adults and 45 breeding pairs.
Scientists say wolves play a key role in the ecosystem. Aspen trees in Yellowstone National Park suffered when wolves were absent and began to thrive when they came back and kept leaf-eating elk in check, according to Oregon State University ecologist William Ripple. This produced other benefits, including cooler, tree-shaded streams more vibrant beaver and bison populations that had more plants to eat.
“Rather than just maintaining enough wolves to keep them from going extinct, what researchers and managers should consider is how many wolves would it take for them to be effective at influencing the ecosystem,” Ripple said. “What does it take to keep the prey populations in check, in order to maintain healthy plant communities?”