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The Reintroduction of the Gray Wolf


The gray wolf inhabited the North American continent long before any humans did -- for about 40 million years. Researchers believe that prior to the arrival of Columbus, somewhere between 425,000 and one million wolves populated most of the continent.

When Europeans established and expanded their settlements in North America, the wolf was an unwelcome sight and its habitats were depleted. In addition, the U.S. government instituted programs supporting wolf eradication. Consequently, the animals were driven from 47 of the contiguous states. They survived in only the most inaccessible wilderness areas of Canada, Minnesota, and Alaska.

The gray wolf has been listed as an endangered species since 1973. In 1995, the Department of the Interior and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service implemented the Northern Rocky Mountain Gray Wolf Recovery Plan, which was designed to bolster the endangered wolf population. Under the Recovery Plan, and pursuant to section 10(j) of the Endangered Species Act, Canadian gray wolves were captured and released into Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho.

The first documented wolf bounty was reportedly paid sometime between A.D. 46-120, when Greek officials awarded five silver drachmas to a hunter for bringing in a dead male wolf. Years later, in France, the Statutes of Charlemagne (A.D. 742-814) recorded that "two hunters were to be employed in each French community to destroy wolves." During the Middle Ages, Europeans bred large wolf-hounds and mastiffs for the specific purpose of killing wolves and keeping wolves away from farms.

In North America, the Pilgrims established the first Colonial wolf bounty on November 9, 1630, in Boston, Massachusetts, only ten years after landing in the New World. By the mid-1800s, wolves in North America had become the prime targets of the fur trade, and the object of loathing by farmers and ranchers, who feared for their families and livestock. Between 1870 and 1877, bounty hunters employed by the United States government killed approximately 55,000 wolves each year, for a total of 385,000 wolf deaths in only seven years. In 1907, with westward expansion in full-swing, "the United States Biological Survey declared the extermination of the wolf as the paramount objective of the government," and President Theodore Roosevelt labeled wolves "the beast[s] of waste and destruction." Thereafter, the United States government launched a full-scale campaign aimed at the total elimination of the wolf in the United States, and it very nearly succeeded.

In light of these historical facts, it is evident that humans have long harbored a fear and misunderstanding of the wolf, which has unfortunately been bolstered by myths, legends, and fairy tales. Fortunately, the light of conservation shone even in the midst of the government-sponsored extirpation of the wolf, and in 1872 the Yellowstone National Park Act (1872 Act) was enacted. In addition to creating Yellowstone Park, the 1872 Act directed the Secretary of the Interior to prevent the "wanton destruction of ... game ... within the park, and [to protect] against their capture or destruction." Subsequently, years of bitter debate ensued over the need for wildlife protection throughout the United States. Finally, one hundred years later, Congress affirmed the need for plant and wildlife conservation by passing the 1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The ESA was landmark legislation in the area of species conservation, but its provisions did not adequately address the inherent conflict between wildlife renewal and the human society and economy. To address this deficiency, in 1982 Congress added amendment 10(j) to the ESA, which provided for the reintroduction of "experimental populations" of an endangered species to an area. Section 10(j) was designed to allow the Secretary to enhance the growth of endangered species' populations by enabling a species to repopulate its former range, while giving the Secretary enough management flexibility to address the problems and concerns of citizens affected by the reintroduction program.

One such reintroduction program was preliminarily approved in 1987 for the Northern Rocky Mountain gray wolf. When the gray wolf was listed as endangered in 1973, scientists hoped that the species would naturally repopulate the Northern Rocky Mountain region, including Yellowstone Park. However, according to government research, the gray wolf failed to repopulate its range naturally as expected.

To bolster recovery, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) proposed a plan which recommended introduction of an experimental population of gray wolves into Yellowstone Park and central Idaho pursuant to ESA section 10(j). After much debate, the Recovery Plan was formally approved and signed by the Secretary on June 15, 1994.

When, at long last, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt released the first reintroduced gray wolf back into Yellowstone Park in January 1995, he had the honor of carrying out a conservation plan more than one hundred years in the making. Despite the Secretary's pride in the program, the gray wolf reintroduction is the subject of intense controversy, with complaints coming from both ranchers and environmental groups. As a result of protection by the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and reintroduction programs, wolves have expanded their territory in Minnesota and returned to Wyoming, Idaho, Wisconsin, Michigan, Montana, and Arizona.

The success of the reintroduction program has prompted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to propose a change in the status of the gray wolf under the Endangered Species Act. This proposed rule, recently published in the Federal Register, addresses the status of gray wolves in most of the United States and Mexico. It does not affect Mexican gray wolves in the southwestern United States and Mexico, gray wolves in Alaska or Canada, or the red wolf, a separate species found in the Southeast.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service intends to begin the process of delisting wolves from the ESA after a total of at least 30 breeding pairs of wolves have produced litters in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming each year for 3 consecutive years. Before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can proceed with the delisting process of the gray wolf in the West, and allow the states of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming to assume responsibility for wolf management, the states must have approved wolf management plans in place.

These plans must include sufficient regulatory mechanisms to ensure the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the public that wolf populations will be maintained at such a level that they will not decline to the point that they will require the protections of the ESA again in the future. If 30 litters are not produced annually in the 3-state area after delisting, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will likely put wolves back on the endangered species list in the northern Rockies and reassume authority for management and recovery.

So far only Montana, Idaho and Wyoming have submitted a management plan for approval. **Update: The Wyoming Game and Fish Department hosted public scoping meetings to gather public input on items addressed in the development of a wolf management plan for Wyoming. Please visit WG&FD website for the latest information. Wyoming has a draft management plan online for viewing, with comments taken until December 12, 2002.

Updates on how the wolves are doing in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming can be found at the following websites: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Ralph Maughan's Wildlife Reports, and Wolf Recovery Foundation. To receive email updates, please visit the Wolf Recovery Foundation.

Documents concerning the Reintroduction of the Gray Wolf
You will need free Adobe Acrobat Reader to read these PDF files.
Chronology: Gray Wolf in the Rocky Mountains
Gray Wolf Annual Reports:
    1989, 1990, 1991-92, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996,
    1997 (YNP), 1998 (YNP), 1999, 2000, 2001
    2002, 2003
Idaho Wolf Annual Progress Reports:
    1995-1998, 1999-2001, 2002, 2003
1994 Final Wolf Reintroduction
Environmental Impact Statement:
    intro   part 1   part 2   part 3   part 4  
    part 5   part 6
1973 Endangered Species Act
1987 Gray Wolf Recovery Plan
1988 Interim Wolf Control Plan
Final 1994 Experimental Population & Reintroduction Rule
1999 Evaluation & Modifications to 1988 Control Plan
2000 National Wolf Reclassification Proposal
Summary of Delisting Proposal
Final Gray Wolf Reclassification
Latest version of state Wolf Management Plan:
  Idaho (final)   Montana (final)   Wyoming (draft)
(Permission granted by U.S.Fish & Wildlife Service to redistribute.)

The Gray Wolf Recovery Plan

The gray wolf was virtually eliminated from the western portion of the United States by the early 1900s. Due to the efforts of hunters and trappers, the gray wolf disappeared from the Great Plains and Yellowstone Park by 1926.

The natural range of the gray wolf originally stretched from northern Canada and Alaska to the mountains of Mexico, and encompassed virtually the entire continental United States. By the time the ESA was enacted in 1973, gray wolves had been eradicated from Mexico and most of the United States, and existed only in Canada, Alaska, and small areas of Minnesota and Montana. Between 1940 and 1986, no wolf reproduction was detected in the Rocky Mountain states.

Accordingly, pursuant to the ESA, the Secretary listed the gray wolf subspecies Northern Rocky Mountain Wolf (canis lupus irremotus) as an endangered species in 1973. In 1978, the Secretary expanded this to include the entire species, and canis lupus was listed as endangered in the lower forty-eight states, except in Minnesota where it was listed as a threatened species.

In accordance with section 1533(f) of the ESA, the Department of the Interior (via FWS) appointed a wolf recovery team in 1974, which consisted of individuals from federal and state agencies, conservation groups, and livestock organizations. The job of this team was to develop a recovery plan for the gray wolf. The recovery team conducted extensive surveys in Montana, Idaho, and Yellowstone Park, searching for existing wolf populations and appropriate recovery areas. Due to the team's efforts, Montana wolf sightings increased from ten in 1970 to 265 in 1990, and at least four wolf dens were documented in Montana in 1990.

The Recovery Plan was completed in 1980 and was intended to help coordinate efforts towards the recovery of at least two viable gray wolf populations in the lower forty-eight states. When the Recovery Plan was revised in 1987 (1987 Plan), it concluded that a population of approximately 300 wolves was required for the species to recover in areas of the western United States from which it had been eliminated. The 1987 Plan recommended that the reintroduced population "consist of at least ten breeding pairs for three consecutive years" in each of three recovery areas (northwestern Montana, central Idaho, and Yellowstone Park). While natural recovery was recommended in most of Idaho and Montana, the 1987 plan endorsed the establishment of a nonessential experimental population in Yellowstone Park. The idea was to reintroduce between 90 and 150 wolves into Yellowstone Park and central Idaho between 1994 and 1999, resulting in the recovery of at least ten breeding pairs of wolves for three successive years by 2002.

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires all federal agencies proposing to undertake major actions that might significantly affect the human environment to prepare and circulate Environmental Impact Statements (EISs). An EIS is supposed to produce a"publicly reviewable physical document reflecting the required internal project analysis." Such public disclosure is designed to force federal agencies to consider the potential consequences of a project before acting, and also to give the public a chance to review the project proposal and to voice concerns.

In 1992, in accordance with NEPA requirements, FWS began preparation of an EIS, which proceeded through the three stages of:

  1. scoping (to identify issues and alternatives)
  2. the draft EIS
  3. the final EIS (FEIS)
At roughly the same time, the National Park Service published a report entitled "Wolves for Yellowstone?", a two-volume, "massive compilation of scientific studies, computer modeling, and social and economic analyses, embodying virtually everything known about wolf biology." The report was intended to provide the government and the public with as much information about the repercussions of wolf reintroduction as possible. It was also an attempt "to forecast how the return of the wolf was likely to affect both human concerns and natural processes in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem." In addressing the concerns of ranchers, who were the primary adversaries of wolf reintroduction, "Wolves for Yellowstone?" concluded that the wolf recovery program would have only mild effects on both hunting and ranching in the recovery areas.

Following these scoping sessions, the draft EIS was assembled by the recovery team, FWS, and the Department of the Interior. It was a massive document, weighing in at over three pounds and encompassing everything from a history of wolf extirpation to projected impacts on local economies, hunting, and tourism. Since, according to NEPA, the draft EIS was subject to public review, more hearings were held, and again, the feedback was overwhelmingly in favor of returning the wolves to Yellowstone.

After considering the oral and written commentary on the draft EIS, FWS released the FEIS in July 1994, which set out five alternatives for a wolf recovery program:

  1. reintroduction of experimental populations;
  2. natural recovery (no action);
  3. no wolf (change laws to prevent wolf recovery);
  4. wolf management committee (establish legislation allowing states to implement wolf recovery and management without federal intervention);
  5. reintroduction of nonexperimental wolves (reintroduced wolves would have full ESA protection).
FWS favored the first option, and proposed to establish two nonessential experimental population areas (in central Idaho and Yellowstone) under ESA section 10(j). As described previously, this meant that the wolves would:
  1. be technically listed as threatened;
  2. receive full ESA protections within the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park;
  3. receive their own special regulations for management purposes;
  4. be subject to flexible management by the Secretary.

In accordance with section 10(j), FWS adopted a set of special management rules for the wolf recovery program, which were partly designed to address the concerns of livestock ranchers. The final rules were published on November 22, 1994, and provided that increased management flexibility would be allowed so that private citizens could harass or even kill wolves caught in the act of killing livestock on private property.

On June 15, 1994, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt signed a Record of Decision essentially approving the FEIS and adopting FWS's Recovery Plan. The farm bureau federations attempted at the last minute to stop reintroduction by requesting a preliminary injunction from the Wyoming district court, but their motion was denied on January 3, 1995. On January 12, 1995, the Recovery Plan commenced and the first reintroduced gray wolf, an alpha female, was released into Yellowstone Park.


The Endangered Species Act of 1973

The ESA was designed to protect both endangered and threatened species. An endangered species is one"in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range." A threatened species, on the other hand, is one "which is likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range."

The ESA was enacted in 1973 for the purpose of providing "a means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species depend may be conserved, [and] to provide a program for the conservation of such endangered species and threatened species." To accomplish this, the ESA declares that "all Federal departments and agencies shall seek to conserve endangered species and threatened species and shall utilize their authorities in furtherance of the purposes of this [Act]." This affirmative duty includes a mandate that the Secretary of the Interior promulgate a recovery plan for the conservation and survival of listed species. In addition, the ESA charges FWS with the duty of conserving both endangered and threatened species. In short, the ESA requires the Secretary and FWS to use all methods and procedures necessary to bring any endangered or threatened species back to a position where protection is no longer necessary.

Credit Information -
Bruce Babbitt, Secretary of the Interior (1996)
Endangered Species Act, 16 U.S.C. Section 1533(f) (1973 & Supp. 1996).
Yellowstone National Park Act, ch. 24, Section 1, 17 Stat. 32 (1872) (codified as amended at 16 U.S.C. Section 21 (West 1992)).
United States Fish & Wildlife Service
National Environmental Policy Act, 42 U.S.C. Subsection 4321-4370(e) (1970);
Environmental Law and Policy: Nature , Law, and Society 612-13 (1998). Wildlife and Fisheries, 50 C.F.R. Section 17.80 (1994)
Wyoming Farm Bureau Fed'n (987 F)
Nancy Gibson, 'Wolves' (1996).
R.D. Lawrence, 'Trail of the Wolf' (1993).
Thomas McNamee, 'The Return of the Wolf to Yellowstone' (1997)
Craig E. Enochs, Gone Today, Here Tomorrow, 4 HASTINGS W.-N.W.J. ENVTL. L. & POL'Y 91, 98 (1997).
Inga Haagenson Causey, The Reintroduction of the Wolf in Yellowstone, 11 TUL. ENVTL. L.J. 461,462 (1998).
National Wildlife Federation, Wolf Facts


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