Image credit: Cloudtail the Snow Leopard, Creative Commons

Wolves are scrambling to survive in the United States

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in 1978 there were only around 1,000 gray wolves left in the wild in the contiguous United States. Biologists, conservationists, Indigenous communities, and wildlife activists banded together, creating a movement of awareness about the ecosystem importance of this vanishing species that resulted in their placement on the endangered list nationwide. In the decades since then, wolf numbers grew to over 6,000 and their recovery was a positive conservation story. However, in October 2020, the Trump administration removed gray wolves from the protection of the Endangered Species Act, citing their successful recovery and turning their management over to states and local tribes. What ensued in the following months has been described as “a dire situation” for all wolves and and other large carnivores such as coyotes, according to Dave Parsons from the conservation group Project Coyote. 

When the decision took effect in early January 2021, massive killings began to take place. In Wisconsin, hunters took down 216 wolves in less than 60 hours. This was more than 82% above the authorities’ stated quota of 119 animals that was supposed to take place over the entire season. Citing the protection of ranching interests, Idaho has embarked on a campaign to reduce its estimated 1,500 wolves to only 150, although wolves are responsible for the loss of less than 0.02% of the state’s livestock according to the agriculture industry’s own highest estimate, while elk and deer numbers are thriving. (In addition, wolf predation on livestock has been shown  to increase when their packs are destabilized and unable to hunt wild prey.) Montana is following a similar extermination program. With the ban lifted on gray wolves, other species are now at high risk, too, such as the eastern timber wolf, western timber wolf, red wolf, and coyote. Each of these animals acts as the apex predator in its distinct ecosystem, a role that ultimately dictates the health and biodiversity of that region.  

As gray wolves prey on elk and caribou, timber wolves on white-tailed deer, and coyotes mainly on rabbits and squirrels, they are all playing the same essential role. At the top of their food chains, they keep other species in balance by preventing overpopulation - especially by large herbivores. Without wolves or coyotes leveling out their population numbers, large numbers of herbivores tend to overgraze and defoliate their habitats. Wolves are so critical to the health of their environments that when they were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in 1995, they changed the course of rivers by keeping hoofed animals from causing severe erosion of the river and stream banks. The regeneration of wildlife by wolves has included not only plants but birds, beavers, mice, foxes, and bears - as well as healthier elk. This is just one indication of the vital ecological roles played by wolves in restoring and promoting biodiversity health and ecosystem function.

Eastern timber wolf pack

With the climate crisis placing all of humanity in “a dire situation,” it is now more important than ever to protect wolves as they serve a crucial role in helping sequester carbon by keeping forest ecosystems healthy. Although coyotes are of less concern in the conservation realm, overkilling them has been shown to lead only to more coyotes, as their genes signal a change to begin breeding earlier and produce more offspring when their populations are low. Project Coyote, a national non-profit organization based in Northern California, has been at the forefront of protecting wolves and coyotes. So far, they have helped eight states to ban the poaching of wolves and prohibit wildlife killing contests: Arizona, California, Colorado, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Vermont, and Washington.  To help their efforts and further the awareness of how vital wolves are to the health of our planet, please sign the #StopTheKill petition here and ask your representatives in Washington D.C. to pressure the Biden Administration to restore the listing of wolves as an endangered species.