FAQ: Conservation

Q: Are wolves considered endangered?
A: Legally, most wolf populations in the United States are no longer protected under the Endangered Species Act, after they were delisted from the Endangered Species List in 2011. Wolf regulation is now mostly left up to the individual states. Those states have quickly instituted wolf hunting seasons, in some cases (such as Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana) very large ones aimed at significantly reducing wolf populations. The true, often unstated aim for some of these state “management” plans is destroying as many wolves as possible. Several wolf populations in the US are still protected, including Mexican wolves, which were extinct in the wild until an experimental population was recently released into Arizona/New Mexico; and red wolves, which were released into a small pocket of North Carolina in the 1980s after the last wild ones had been captured and placed in a captive breeding program. However, the USFWS has proposed delisting all wolf populations throughout the U.S. except for Mexican gray and red wolves, and some state and local governments are pushing to have Mexican gray and red wolves delisted as well.

In other parts of the world, the status of wolves varies. In some areas wolves are legally protected but the laws are not enforced and many are killed by poachers. In other areas they are legally protected and the laws are enforced, allowing wolves to thrive and expand their range. In still other areas, such as Mongolia, China, and most of the Middle East aside from Israel, wolves lack any legal protection and continue to be widely persecuted. Some local wolf populations are seriously, even critically, endangered, such as the recently-discovered wolves of North Africa. Nonetheless, from a global perspective, gray wolves are in reasonably good shape. The worldwide population is around 200,000, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), in its Red List of Endangered Species, rates the gray wolf as “Least Concern.” Thus, gray wolves as a species face little immediate danger of extinction, but individual wolves in many areas continue to suffer from persecution by humans.

Q: What is involved in hunting wolves?
A: There are several methods used by wolf hunters. The most humane method would be finding a wolf in the wild and fatally shooting it with a gun. However, since wolves are very alert, intelligent, and shy of people, it’s not easy to get close enough to one on the ground to use this method. One of the more “humane” alternatives is aerial hunting, which consists of chasing a wolf by plane or helicopter until it is completely exhausted, then shooting it, either from the air or after landing. This method is only “humane” in contrast to the other options, which include trapping wolves by the paw in large steel traps, where they may remain in agony for hours or days before being killed; trapping them in snares which strangle them to death; hunting them with dogs which rip them to pieces; and poisoning them with strychnine or other chemicals that result in slow, agonizing deaths. The truth is that there is simply no easy way to humanely kill wild wolves. In any case, because in the U.S. current wolf levels are sustainable and wolves cause little economic damage to livestock, keep prey populations healthy and in check, and pose virtually no safety risk to people (see below), there are no good reasons why wolves should be hunted in large numbers.

Q: Why have wolves been hated and persecuted for so long?
A: While some human cultures have tolerated or even venerated wolves, for millennia these animals have been viewed by many as vicious, bloodthirsty devils incarnate, a threat to “civilization.” One reason is that they have long had a reputation as being dangerous to people, but this danger has been wildly exaggerated (see below). Another big reason is that wolves sometimes attack livestock—though the threat they pose to livestock has also been exaggerated (see below)—and so many people, especially ranchers and others living in rural areas, still view wolves as cruel, bloodthirsty killers. Another group that frequently demonizes wolves is game hunting enthusiasts. While many big game hunters are reasonable people who love the outdoors and support intelligent and responsible wildlife management, there are also unfortunately many others who are concerned only with bagging as many trophies as possible; and state and local governments tend to be more concerned with a short-term influx of money than long-term sustainability of the local ecosystems. So despite the fact that predators like wolves probably play an important role in regulating and maintaining the health of their ecosystems, there are many people who would like to see wolves eliminated because the short-term result will be larger populations of game like elk and deer, or because they consider wolves “savage killers” (for hunting the same wild game as humans do!) Most of the wolf’s nasty reputation derives from prejudice, misinformation, and fairy tales like “Little Red Riding Hood,” rather than from reality.

Q: Don’t wolves destroy large numbers of livestock?
A: Evidence shows that wolves prefer to hunt their natural prey when that prey is abundant, but in large areas throughout the world, wolves’ original habitat has been destroyed and their wild prey eliminated to make way for farms, pastures, and cities. As a result, wolves in some parts of the world do regularly hunt livestock, and have evidently been doing so for a long time. But while it’s true that wolves sometimes attack livestock, especially where their natural prey is gone, the threat they pose to livestock in the U.S. is negligible. Generally, wolf predation accounts for less than 3% of livestock mortality in the states where they occur, but many ranchers are so used to the negative stereotypes attached to wolves that they are quick to blame them whenever deaths occur. For instance, in 1991, U.S. cattle ranchers reported 1,400 losses to wolves; of these, 1,200 occurred in states where wolves did not live! The truth is that coyotes and domestic dogs pose a far greater threat to livestock in the US than wolves do. Nonetheless, ranchers’ fears are not entirely groundless, and we need to be honest in admitting that wolves will sometimes attack livestock if presented with the opportunity, and there should be systems in place to compensate or protect ranchers who experience losses. However, we would urge that non-lethal deterrents be used whenever possible, and that ranchers come to view wolves as an important part of the environment, even if it is a part which occasionally comes into conflict with us.

Q: Are wolves dangerous?
A: The short answer is: usually not. Wolves are very shy and reclusive, and their normal reaction to people is extreme fear, rather than aggression. Especially in North America, cases of healthy wolves attacking people are extremely rare. However, in India wolves do sometimes attack unaccompanied children, which due to their size and vulnerability the wolves view as prey. (It is relevant that all the wolves’ wild prey has been eliminated from these areas, and that children there tend livestock in the wilderness unaccompanied.) Historical cases of wolf attacks can usually be attributed to rabies, predation on unattended children, wolfdogs or wolves that had been habituated to people, or just an overactive imagination. To put the threat posed by wolves in perspective, a person in wolf country has a greater chance of dying from lightning or a bee sting than they do of being attacked by a wolf. Nevertheless, people in wolf country should take basic precautionary measures: leave food and trash in sealed containers, never feed wolves or other wild animals, never leave children unattended in lowly-populated areas, don’t allow pets to wander free, try to travel in groups when possible, etc. If you are confronted by a wolf, never run from it, as that will trigger its prey drive—instead, try to make yourself appear as big as possible, make loud noises, wave your hands, and try to scare it off, while backing slowly away.

Q: Where are wolves still found?

Former (red) and present (green) extent of gray wolves around the world. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

A: Before they were persecuted by people, gray wolves were the most widespread of all wild land mammals, living from central Mexico to the Canadian high arctic islands and from southern India and North Africa to Siberia. They lived in a wide variety of habitats, from deserts to forests to prairies to steppes to mountains to taiga to tundra. Today, wolves mostly live in remaining wilderness areas like much of Canada or national parks like Yellowstone, but there are also some wolf populations living near populated areas, especially in parts of Europe and the Middle East. In the U.S., gray wolves are found in Alaska, California, Idaho, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. There is also a small population of Mexican gray wolves that was released into Arizona and New Mexico, and a small population of red wolves that was released into North Carolina. Elsewhere in the world, gray wolves can be found in North Africa, parts of India, the Middle East, parts of China, the steppes of central Asia, Turkey, Russia, Scandinavia, and several areas of southern, eastern, and central Europe.

Q: Are there any wolves in Texas?
A: While both red and gray wolves once lived in this state, there is no longer any wild wolf population in Texas, although it’s possible there may be occasional gray wolves present which are escaped captive animals. Gray wolves were essentially extirpated from the state by the 1940s. Red wolves once lived throughout the eastern half of the state, but they were mostly eliminated early in the 20th century as well, and by the 1970s the few remaining red wolves were captured by the federal government for use in a captive breeding and reintroduction program. People often report seeing wolves in Texas, but the most likely explanation is that the animals are escaped captive animals, misidentified dogs or wolfdogs, or larger than average coyotes (some Texas coyotes appear to have some red wolf DNA due to past interbreeding, and appear more wolflike than normal coyotes). Zoologist David Schmidly writes in The Mammals of Texas: “A few reports are received each year concerning the occurrence of red and gray wolves in Texas; however, in those instances where it has been possible to study the specimen, all have proven to be unusually large coyotes.”

Q: What kinds of wolves live in America?
A: There are two wolf species living in America: the gray wolf (Canis lupus) and the red wolf (Canis rufus). There are five subspecies of gray wolf in North America: the arctic wolf (Canis lupus arctos), eastern timber wolf (C. l. lycaon), Great Plains wolf (C. l. nubilus), Mexican wolf (C. l. baileyi), and Rocky Mountain wolf (C. l. occidentalis). Of these species and subspecies, the red wolf and Mexican wolf are critically endangered, with only a few hundred individuals of each remaining.

Q: What are the future conservation threats to the wolf?
A: Aside from continued direct persecution by people, the most significant long-term threat to wolf conservation is habitat destruction. The world’s human population continues to grow tremendously, and we continue to destroy huge tracts of wild land in order to house ourselves, obtain natural resources, and create spaces for farming and ranching. Continued destruction of the wolf’s natural habitat and prey base will both drive it to a more marginal existence, as well as bring it into greater conflict with people. Some of this habitat destruction is unavoidable, but much of it is due to unsustainable levels of resource and land usage, particularly in the developed world.

Q: How can I help?
A: There are a number of simple steps you can take to help wolves. Some of our suggestions include:

  • Advocate: Write letters to or call your elected representatives and appropriate government agencies and tell them your positions on wolves and other conservation issues. Contact representatives who support wolf hunting and tell them your position. Write to newspapers or other media outlets too. Always make sure your communications are polite, respectful, well-reasoned, and well-supported by the facts.
  • Change minds and educate: If you have friends or family who are opposed to wolf conservation efforts or view wolves as evil and bloodthirsty, help educate them and politely try to show them the truth about wolves. If you know someone who wants to buy a “wolf hybrid puppy” advertised in the newspaper, explain to them the dangers of dishonest breeders, the terrible problem of wolfdog overpopulation, and the difficulties faced by inexperienced owners. (See here for information on these issues.) Always make sure your communications are polite, respectful, well-reasoned, and well-supported by the facts.
  • Reduce, reuse, and recycle: Habitat destruction, human overuse of non-renewable resources, climate change, and similar problems form the greatest future conservation threat that wolves will face. You can play a role in fighting this threat by reducing your own consumption of nonrenewable resources, and buying products produced responsibly and sustainably. Consider also eating less meat, which is far more “expensive” to produce in terms of land use and carbon footprint. Buy locally-produced food and other products when you can.
  • Volunteer and donate: Give time, money, support, and/or other needed resources to organizations which support wolves, other endangered animals/ecosystems, conservation, and education.

For other tips on how you can help, see some of the conservation organizations listed on our links page.