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All About Wolves: Gray Wolves of Yellowstone

The Wolves

A pair of radio-collared red wolves One hundred and fifty years ago the wolf was found in great numbers throughout North America. It wasn't unusual to see wolves loping over the Great Plains, dashing through vast forests, or vanishing into the thick bushes and grass growing along rivers. Captain Meriwether Lewis, of the Lewis and Clark expedition, wrote that the wolves prowling around the edges of immense buffalo herds were so common that they reminded him of the sheepdogs he'd seen in West Virginia herding domestic livestock.

So, what happened to the wolves in North America?

When settlers arrived here they brought more than their belongings with them. They also brought the mistaken idea that the wolves would kill all the domestic livestock and wild game that settlers depended upon to survive in the wilderness. In addition to this, they also believed that wolves preyed on humans.

The truth is that wolves are rarely aggressive toward people. In the United States, there has never been a documented case of a wild wolf killing a human being. In the presence of people, wolves are actually timid and shy. When biologists crawl into wolf dens to look at pups, adult wolves generally run away and come back when the biologists are gone. A wolf caught in a leghold trap is often held down with nothing more than a forked stick.

Wolves are not bad or evil, they are simply predators attempting to survive in the only way they know how. Like us, they try to get their food in the easiest and safest way possible. And at times, this means they will kill domestic livestock, but this is not as common as many people think.

People's fear of wolves started a war that eliminated wolves from most of the United States. Wolves were shot, poisoned, and trapped. In the spring, when wolves had their young, the dens were found and the pups killed. Every state offered bounties (money prizes) for dead wolves, and "wolf bounty hunters" or "wolfers" made their living by hunting wolves. Ranchers paid dues into cooperative "wolf clubs." In turn, these clubs paid trappers and hunters to kill wolves. Even the federal government joined in the war on wolves. For many years one of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's primary responsibilities was "predator control." Instead of studying wolves, Fish and Wildlife biologists were expected to help ranchers and farmers eliminate wolves.

A femal red wolf protecting her 6 week old pup Wolves are easily killed. One reason for this is that wolves form packs and are territorial, meaning that when a wolf pack finds a suitable habitat it generally stays in that area. To eliminate an entire pack, all people have to do is to set traps or put out poisoned bait in their territory.

The only wolves that survived these attacks were those that retreated farther into the wilderness and lived on land that people didn't want.

To see one of these magnificent predators in the wild in 1996 would be the sight of a lifetime. Both the red and gray wolves are listed as endangered species. This means they are very rare and in danger of becoming extinct.

Over the last 20 years our attitudes about wolves have changed. We've learned that wolves play a vital role in helping to balance our natural ecosystems. As a top predator, wolves kill sick and injured animals. By removing those animals from the population, only the faster and healthier animals survive and reproduce. We've also come to realize that wolves were an important part of our heritage that did not need to be destroyed. It takes time, money, understanding, skillful management, and cooperation, but wolves and people can live together.

Because of this new attitude, both red and gray wolves are making a comeback in the United States with the help of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Park Service, environmental organizations, zoos, and private citizens. The wolf restoration projects try to help keep cattle and sheep safe from the wolves. But some farmers and ranchers who raise animals for a living have had some killed by wolves. Many of those people have been paid when wolves have killed their livestock. Some wolves have been recaptured and moved to stop their preying on domestic animals.

Gray wolves have been reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park in Montana and Wyoming after an absence of over 60 years. Red wolves have been reintroduced into the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and several small islands in the southeastern United States after nearly 100 years.

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