Wolf Recovery Foundation
~ Wolves ~
The Northern Rockies Wolf Collaborative-
The wolf has been the victim of myth for many generations. The Northern Rockies Wolf Collaborative is a group of conservation and wildlife groups that have banded together to dispel some of these myths and educate the public. The wolf is a top predator, neither good nor evil. Please log onto http://www.idahowolves.org/ for answers: myth vs. reality.
Wolf Natural History
The Eskimo called him "Amaguk", the Nez Perce named him "He'me." The Cheyenne Wolf Soldier Band, best known among wolf warriors, incorporated the mysteries of the wolf deeply into the rituals of their clan. Native Americans admired the gray wolf's cunning and hunting abilities - and close family bonds. However European settlers had another view... Instead of respect and understanding, many of these settlers feared and persecuted wolves leading the species to near extinction in the lower 48 states by the early part of the 20th Century. Under large scale, government funded predator control programs; wolves were hunted and killed with more malevolence and violence than any other animal in United States history.
Second only to humans in its adaptation to climate extremes, the gray wolf (Canis Lupis) was equally at home in the deserts of Israel, the deciduous forests of Virginia, and the frozen Arctic of Siberia. The wolf was at one time, the most widely distributed large land mammal in the world. (S. Fritts) Within North America, gray wolves formerly ranged from coast to coast throughout Canada down through Mexico. The wolf is the ancestor of today's domestic dogs.
Wolf families (called packs) usually consist of a set of parents (alpha pair), and generations of their offspring. Alphas are the leaders of the other pack members with all males falling under the order of the Alpha male and all females under the Alpha female. Their strictly established hierarchy serves to create an extraordinary social order which is maintained through complex non-verbal (body, ear and tail posture, eye contact, spatial distance) and verbal communication (whines, growls, barks and howls). Wolves are noted for their distinctive howl. Biologists do not know all of the reasons why wolves howl, but they may do so before and after a hunt, to sound an alarm, and to locate other members of the pack when separated. Wolves howl more frequently in the evening and early morning, especially during winter breeding and pup-rearing. (USFWS) Wolf packs appear to take great pleasure in howling together - often howling when they first greet each other when they wake or before sleeping. These groups howls apparently serve to socially bond pack members.
Alpha wolves begin mating when they are 2 to 3 years old, often establishing life-long mates. The Alpha female digs a den or uses an existing shelter, sometimes with chambers and connecting tunnels, in which to rear her pups for the first 6 weeks of their lives. An average of six pups is born in early spring. Pups are born blind and unable to regulate their body temperature - helpless without their mother. Other pack members help the Alpha female by bringing her food and protecting the den site during this time. As the pups mature, other packs members care them for when the Alpha female leaves the den or rendezvous site to hunt or rest. By 7 to 8 months of age, when they are almost fully-grown, the young wolves begin hunting with the adults. Often after 1 or 2 years of age, a young wolf will leave and try to form its own pack. These wolves are called "dispersers."
Wolf packs usually hunt within a specific territory. Their territory size depends on food availability, external pressure (human and other predator competition) and climate. The average wolf territory is about 10 square miles x the number of pack members. The wolf's great hunting skills lies in its determination and ability to seek out vulnerable prey. Wolves often cover large areas to do so, travelling as far as 30 miles in a day. Although they usually trot along at 5 mph, wolves can attain speeds as high as 45 mph. (USFWS) Wolves prey on ungulates - elk, deer, moose, bison and caribou. Wolves focus their hunt on the weakest among these animals - culling the old, sick, injured or young from ungulate herds, which helps keep these herds healthier as a whole. Of course, wolves are opportunists and will sometimes kill healthy animals if safe opportunities arise. Hunting elk and moose is dangerous as one kick can result in a broken leg or other injuries leading to the death of the wolf. Wolves support a wide variety of other animals. Ravens, foxes, coyotes, martins, wolverines, vultures, and even bears and eagles feed on the remains of animals killed by wolves. Raven and wolves appear to have developed a special relationship - ravens scavenge from wolf kills and also serve to alert wolves when they sense danger nearby. Wolves are also scavengers - eating winter killed prey in addition to hunting their food.
Early settlers moving westward severely depleted most populations of bison, deer, elk, and moose -- animals that were important prey for wolves. With little alternative, the wolf then turned to the sheep and cattle that had replaced its natural prey. To protect livestock, ranchers and government agencies began a campaign to eliminate the wolf. Bounty programs, initiated in the 19th Century, continued as late as 1965, offering $20 to $50 per wolf. Wolves were trapped, shot from planes and snowmobiles, and hunted with dogs. Animal carcasses salted with strychnine were left out for wolves to eat. This practice killed millions of wolves and, indiscriminately, also eagles ravens, foxes, bears, and other animals, which also fed on the poisoned carrion. (USFWS) These practices are still used today in areas where wolves are not legally protected.
Today, over 2,000 wolves exist in Minnesota, fewer than 40 on Lake Superior's Isle Royale, about 140 in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, 140 in Wisconsin, and about 100 in Montana, 120 in Idaho, and 120 in Yellowstone. Numbers are unknown in Washington, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Populations fluctuate due to food availability and strife within packs.
The gray wolf is listed under the Endangered Species Act as a threatened species in Minnesota, and as an endangered species elsewhere in the lower 48 states. "Endangered" means a species is considered in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range, and "threatened" means a species is considered in danger of becoming endangered. In Alaska, wolf populations number 5,900 to 7,200 and are not considered endangered or threatened. The Canadian wolf population is estimated 50,000.
Wolves seldom kill livestock. In areas where wolves and livestock co-exist, losses due to wolves is less than .5% of total livestock losses. Many more cows and sheep die of disease, weather, attacks from dogs, or abandonment. However, efforts are made to prevent or control wolf related livestock losses. In Minnesota, where the largest wolf population in lower 48 states resides, a special state program provides compensation for livestock confirmed to be killed by wolves, and a federal program provides for trapping, moving or removing of individual wolves guilty of depredation. (USFWS) Defenders of Wildlife established a private fund to reimburse ranchers fair market value for livestock losses due to wolf depredations.
Wolf recovery and management are very polarized, controversial, and emotional issues often involving human attitudes based more on myth than real wolves themselves. Attitudes are often based on inaccurate information, making wolf management perhaps more difficult than any other wildlife management program. For example, some people continue to carry the unfounded fear that wolves attack people or threaten outdoor activities. In fact, wolves generally avoid humans. There are no verified reports of healthy wild wolves ever killing a human in North America. Wolves could easily kill a human and perhaps will some day - like other predators have on occasion - but the threat of a wolf attack is much less than being struck by lightning or killed by a cow.
The Reintroduction of Wolves to Idaho and Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park has been at the center of debates over the wolf for decades. Wolves were deliberately extirpated from this park in 1930. Today, the wolf has been restored to the Yellowstone ecosystem - and the central Idaho wilderness area -- the largest relatively intact wilderness areas in the lower 48 states. After years of comprehensive study and planning, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began an effort to reintroduce gray wolves into Yellowstone and central Idaho. The Service had previously identified these areas as necessary for wolf recovery, as well as northwest Montana, where wolf packs have already become established as wolves from Canada have expanded their range.
Part of the reintroduction effort involved capturing a group of wolves from Alberta and the next year, British Columbia, Canada, (where wolves are not protected and are randomly killed) and bringing them to the U.S. for the reintroduction. When these wolves were finally reintroduced in 1995, they were designated as "non-essential experimental" under protection of the Endangered Species Act, including provisions allowing control of wolves under certain circumstances. For example, wolves can be moved, or removed if they are determined to be preying on livestock or if wild populations of deer, elk, and other large game are severely affected by wolf predation. (USFWS)
The reintroduction plan has been extremely successful - both biologically and economically. Wolf populations are growing incrementally in each of the reintroduction areas - surpassing most expectations, with fewer livestock losses, and less cost than anticipated. Today, 13 years after the reintroduction, wolves roam wild and free in Yellowstone, Montana, and Idaho, and despite predictions that wolf numbers would get out of control, the population has stopped growing.
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