Are Wolves Endangered?

The gray wolf in the contiguous 48 United States has long been on the federal government’s list of endangered species, which includes both threatened and endangered populations. In Minnesota, the gray wolf is considered by the federal government to be threatened, whereas it is considered fully endangered the other Great Lakes states, the Southwest and the Northern Rockies. In Alaska the gray wolf thrives in such numbers that it is neither threatened nor endangered.

Classifying the status of animals is a judgment call. In some cases, the judgment is easy. For example, the California condor population includes only a few remaining members and is clearly endangered. With other species, such as the gray wolf, the situation is far more complex.

Worldwide, wolves once lived everywhere north of about 20 degrees north latitude, a parallel that runs through Mexico City and southern India. In 1999 the minimum world wolf population was estimated at 150,000, with a minimum of 55,000 in Canada, 85,181 in Eurasia, and 9,790 in the United States (including Alaska). In many other countries, including Mexico, the gray wolf is long gone.

In the 48 contiguous states, wolf populations are scattered. Minnesota supports about 3,000 wolves. This population seems to be increasing in numbers and in distribution. About 700 wolves live in Wisconsin and around 500 in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Isle Royale holds 19.  With the government-sponsored reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming and also into Central Idaho 1995 and 1996, the Greater Yellowstone Area now supports over 1,700 wolves. In addition Mexican wolves were reintroduced into Arizona and New Mexico in 1998 and the wild population is declining at around 50.

How should the gray wolf be classified in the 48 states? People who contend that the currently-used endangered classification is correct, cite the following reasons:

  1. In the contiguous 48 states, the gray wolf currently occupies only about 6 percent of its former range.
  2. Most of the gray wolf’s former habitat in these 48 states is unsuitable for wolves, and probably never will be suitable, due mainly to human encroachment.
  3. Public attitudes toward wolves are mixed, with many residents of the gray wolf’s range holding strong anti-wolf opinions.
  4. The long-term trends in land use suggest that much of the current or potential wolf range will continue to be developed and, thus, rendered unsuitable for wolves, even in Minnesota.
  5. It was only after gray wolves were given protection by the Endangered Species Act that wolf populations in the United States began to increase.

Opponents of the endangered species classification for the gray wolf in the contiguous 48 states counter with these arguments:

  1. Over 4,000 gray wolves live in the Great Lakes Area, where their numbers are stable.
  2. Even if all the gray wolves were exterminated from the 48 contiguous states, Alaska, Canada and several other nations support viable populations.
  3. Inclusion of gray wolves on the Endangered Species List precludes public harvesting of gray wolves and, thus, costs the government control program over $200,000 per year to control gray wolves and the MN Department of Agriculture spends over $75,000 per year compensating farmers for verified wolf damage to livestock. Money might be saved if gray wolves could be legally hunted and trapped.
  4. Endangered species money spent on gray wolves could be used to help save other, more endangered species.

The debate and controversy about the gray wolf continues to rage among knowledgeable people on both sides of the issue. What do you think?