A large number of wolves who wandered out of the protection of Yellowstone National Park have been killed by hunters. The killings underscore the tenuous recovery of gray wolves in the American west as wolves try to return to their former range. Wolf advocates are worried because the hunting season is not over.
Wolves once roamed freely throughout the United States. They were extirpated in most of their American range by 1960. A few survived in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota and their cousins, red wolves, survived in the South until 1967. Red wolves were so critically endangered that the survivors were captured. They entered captive breeding programs, but are once again hanging on by their teeth in the face of extinction.
Gray wolves have always had mortal human enemies including stockmen and ranchers who blame them for deaths of domestic animals. Some hunters also wish to kill them. Attitudes softened starting in the 1970’s with a new generation of biologists studying wolf behavior and reintroduction efforts began in the 1990’s. Wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park in 1995 and more favorable attitudes to wolves allowed for them to begin a slow reintroduction in other parks of the west. Wolves came into the United States from Canada and left Yellowstone. There are packs in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, the Yellowstone region and California.
Scientists say reintroduction has been good for the ecosystems involved. Wolf kills provide food for many smaller animals and scavengers. They also provide food for bears in difficult winters. Wolves have limited coyote populations, which may help smaller animals survive and thrive. Their impact on animals people hunt and on livestock has been debated but does not seem to be too large. Colorado State University notes, however, that although the total impact of wolves on livestock is low it is unevenly distributed. Some producers are hit seriously while others aren’t. The University also notes that wolves don’t always fully consume a kill, which rankles livestock owners.