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Reintroducing the Gray Wolf in the U.S.

Ryan Johnson


Previous wolf reintroduction programs have proven successful when:

  • the community gets involved in the project
  • people are educated about how to co-exist with wolves
  • compensation is provided to farmers for killed farm animals
  • population control measures are part of the program

January 2001

Note: Because some of the information in this article may be outdated, it has been archived.

Gray wolf reintroduction is a very controversial subject.

A captive Gray Wolf at the Wildlife Science Center in Minnesota. Photographer: Derek Bakken Creative Commons

Of all the mammals slated for reintroduction, the gray wolf best exemplifies the hard-line, extremist positions taken by both supporters and opponents. In this day and age, with increasing complexity of groups, and a government taking the middle ground, less and less legislation seems to get off the ground. While the future of the gray wolf looks promising in the Upper Midwest with successful natural colonization, a simple but unanswered question remains: should local people control reintroduction if the wolves fail to recolonize naturally?

Wilderness as the only wolf habitat is a misconception.
Wolves can adapt to open terrain.

Based on past experiences in animal reintroduction and recolonization programs, a better understanding about gray wolf behavior is essential if the gray wolf and humans are to co-exist in reintroduced areas. One of the problems is that people associate wolves with wilderness areas only because:

  • human populations drove the wolves from all other areas, forcing them into wilderness areas, which were generally protected and hard for bounty hunters to reach5
  • as wolves are being reintroduced, local residents fear losing land they use for ranching and recreation because of this “wolf - wilderness” association, even though it has been proven that wolves are highly adaptable and can survive in quasi wilderness settings with greater road densities and more open terrain than previously suggested.5 In other words, wolves can live in semi-populated areas.

But can people live with wolves? The question is not as straightforward as it may seem.

Supporters vs. opponents

Various environmental groups are at the forefront of activities to help people co-exist with wolves. These groups have already alleviated some of roadblocks set up by hard-line pro-wolf group. For example:

Ranchers are sometimes compensated for wolf protection or killed livestock.
  • Defenders of Wildlife instituted a program in Montana and Idaho that paid $5,000 to ranchers to protect wolf dens on the ranchers’ land.5
  • Other conservation groups offer compensation to ranchers for livestock and pet deaths.2 However, expenses add up, especially when government officials are needed to police wolf-prone areas and determine the cause of livestock deaths. Which raises the hypothetical point: how much money is needed to alleviate the stress on a rural family when their pet dog is killed by a gray wolf? How far can money go?
  • Other measures taken by Federal Government include fencing reintroduction areas and the killing of wolves that step out of bounds of their control area.5

The last point raises an important issue; is it legal to kill or capture an endangered species? Hardcore advocacy groups and pro-wolf organizations have taken the matter to court, effectively stalling gray wolf reintroduction efforts. For example:

The law is ambiguous about the capture or kill of endangered wolves.
  • Lawsuits in Wyoming and the Southwest by environmentalists and the Farm Bureau argue that, in active Federal Government wolf reintroduction programs in Idaho and Montana, the “nonessential, experimental wolf populations” being relocated are not protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) like they should be (the gray wolf is endangered in all states).1,7 Therefore this relocation constitutes a taking (killing, capture, or harming) by the Federal Government.1,7
  • In active reintroduction programs in Montana and Idaho, the federal government has granted special permits to ranchers that enable the ranchers to kill wolves that attack livestock, easing up restrictions placed on the wolf under the ESA.1,2
  • A federal judge recently ruled a reintroduction out west as illegal and ordered the killing of wolves to stop.1 Ironically, pro-wolf environmental groups hail this as a victory because wolves are not being killed anymore. Yet reintroduction plans are stalled due to the above legislation, and I believe this is a major step backwards for wolf reintroductions.
Conservationists are debunking wolf myths and fears.

On the other hand, some proponents of wolf reintroduction are taking steps to ensure reintroduced wolves do stand a chance. Groups like the Defenders of Wildlife are mobilizing and spreading unbiased information about the wolf, debunking many public myths about the gray wolf.3 Their hope is for improved education, and for lawsuits and litigation to be avoided in the future.

Managing reintroduction

Unfortunately for many pro wolf groups, this is not an ideal world where gray wolves could return to the land they inhabited hundreds of years ago; and find it uninhabited. One conservation biologist argues that with reintroductions of wolves, the process itself needs to be controlled from people at the local level.5

Some biologists suggest wolf protection begins at the community level.
  • L.D. Mech5 says there is “no recovery without control.” He proposes control at the local level, which is crucial to the success of an active reintroduction plan in Maine and other states.
  • Compensation measures and lethal control devices must be instituted at the local level by townships and state or county environmental organizations.5
  • Initiatives that incorporate the studying, protecting, and holding by local native tribes (who own some of the land where wolves are reintroduced) in Idaho have proven that local efforts can work.1,2
Public education is the key to wolf reintroductions.
In Maine, it is recommended that locals work with government and conservationists.

The role of education

Nearly all conservation biologists urge education and cooperation between interested parties (including between Canada and the U.S.) as the most important step in creating a successful reintroduction plan.3,4,5,6,7 Maine and other states near Canada have potential wolf habitat6 but land management issues need to be resolved first. Yet I believe successful wolf reintroduction could become a reality in Maine and other states if:

  • pro gray wolf recovery groups, such as the Maine Wolf Coalition and Defenders of Wildlife, provide public education and accept control measures as part of a reintroduction plan, so the people of Maine might start to realize that wolves could return there.
  • the people of Maine and other states decide for themselves about wolf reintroduction after an extensive education program, where the federal government and local environmental groups work together.
  • biases and myths were dispelled so conservation and pro-wolf groups could study and promote relocating gray wolf populations.
Conclusion: Wolf reintroduction programs can succeed if local communities get involved.

The gray wolf’s survival

Wolf reintroduction seems to be feasible in Maine and elsewhere in the future but right now there are too many factors against it to become a reality any time soon. Searches to identify suitable habitat are already underway6 and efforts by environmental groups and government agencies are taking shape throughout the country to dispel myths about the wolf. I strongly believe wolf reintroduction in America can succeed if the people in the community work in harmony with the groups that are initiating and managing the programs. This way, locals will realize that hard work can make a wolf roam the forested woods of Northern Maine or the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana once again.

Ryan C. Johnson, a recent graduate of Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, holds a B.A. in Biology and Environmental Studies. Because his interests and hobbies focus on “anything outdoors”, Ryan spent two months after graduation hiking along the Continental Divide Trail. After the long jaunt, he became a full-time SCA (Student Conservation Association) volunteer at Pecos National Historic Park in New Mexico.

Reintroducing the Gray Wolf in the U.S.

Gray Wolf statistics and background

Learn more about the gray wolf in the U.S. from the International Wolf Center. Look around the site for additional resources.

Defenders of Wildlife

Their section on wolves contains information on regional wolves, wolf ecology and biology, and various fact sheets, plus wolf restoration efforts.

Wolves and global warming

May 2005 article in USA Today, “Wolves teach experts about global warming.”

American Farm Bureau Federation

Ranchers’ and farmers’ view of wolf reintroductions.

National Wildlife Federation

Facts and figures about gray wolves, reintroduction, and public education.

Wolf quiz

Test your knowledge of these remarkable animals with the “Running with the Wolves” Quiz. Answers provided as you complete each question.

For Teachers: Wolf Discovery Curriculum

A wealth of activities to guide grades 3 to 8 students on an exploration of the world of wolves, from biology and behavior to the long history of interactions between wolves and humans.

Wolf petitions

» Petitions and activist guides to protect wolves, from Defenders of Wildlife organization.
» Petition to keep federal protection of gray wolves.

Join a wolf organization

The Wolf Organization Address List provides contact information for organizations devoted to the protection of wolves in Canada, Europe, and the U.S.

Wonderful Wolves

In this lesson students learn about wolves through literature and research. Students learn the truth about wolves by completing a WebQuest examining wolf myths. Then students have the opportunity to locate information about wolves through a variety of print resources and the Internet. Primary level.

Relocation Challenge

In this activity, the students have been chosen to serve on the Wolf Relocation Team for placement of Canadian grey wolves in the Granite River National Forest, a fictitious park located in the western region of the United States. In an effort to bring the wolves back to their former habitat, a pack of nine wolves has been trapped in Canada for release in this region. High School.

  1. Bangs, E.E., Fritts, S.H., Fontaine, J.A., Smith, D.W., Murphy, K.M., Mack, C.M., and Niemeyer, C.C. 1998. “Status of gray wolf restoration in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.” Wildlife Society Bulletin 26(4):785.
  2. Chadwick, D.H. May 1998. “Return of the Gray Wolf.” National Geographic 913(5):72.
  3. Environmental News Network (ENN). May 10, 1999. ” New Hampshire outlaws wolf reintroduction.” (Accessed 1/01, no longer available online)
  4. Lohr, C., Ballard, W.B., and Bath, A. 1996. “Attitudes toward gray wolf reintroduction to New Brunswick.” Wildlife Society Bulletin 24(3):414-420.
  5. Mech, L.D. 1995. “The challenge and opportunity of recovering wolf populations.” Conservation Biology 9:270-278.
  6. Mladenoff, D.J. and Sickley, T.A. 1998. “Assessing potential gray wolf restoration in the Northeastern United States: A spatial prediction of favorable habitat and potential population levels.” Journal of Wildlife Management 62(1):1.
  7. Parsons, D. 1998. “‘Green Fire’ returns to the Southwest: Reintroduction of the Mexican wolf.” Wildlife Society Bulletin 26(4):799-807.


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