Humans versus Wolves

What humans imagine. The history of human interactions with wolves is a tangled web of fascination and cruelty, respect and intolerance. Barry Lopez’s classic 1978 book on the subject, Of Wolves and Men, still rings true today. Lopez writes, “The wolf exerts a powerful influence on the human imagination. It takes your stare and turns it back on you.” Indeed, much of the violence toward wolves has been fueled by human imagination, and often what humans imagine to be true about wolves is countered by close observation and scientific study.

Alpha female wolf pc Ray RafitiThe Wolf's role. In North America, wolves were historically widespread, with a sweeping range from coast to coast. Wolves are habitat generalists and occupied a variety of ecosystems throughout the continent (and in other continents as well). This mammal is considered an “apex carnivore,” meaning it sits at the top of the food chain and, through its influence on prey species, influences dynamics down to the most minute aspects of an ecosystem.

The War Against Wolves. But our knowledge about how important wolves are to the ecosystems in which they evolved didn’t come until long after wolves endured a one-sided and terribly effective war waged by humanity. From the earliest days of the conquest of the Western Hemisphere, Europeans brought a Little Red Riding Hood style intolerance for wolves with them to the New World, and the result was near annihilation. The elimination of wolves was mirrored in the fates of other beings also pushed to the edge of existence, including bison, elk, and prairie dogs. The violence against the natural world was likewise leveled by Europeans at indigenous First Nations that had coexisted with wolves and other native creatures for millenia.

The war started early. In 1630, only a decade after coming to the continent, settlers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed laws that provided a bounty to anyone who killed a wolf. And things got worse from there. Wolves simply couldn’t withstand concerted extermination efforts. In the western U.S., the killing reached a high point in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The weaponry included guns, poisons, clubs, and traps, deployed not only by private citizens but by the federal U.S. government itself. The extermination effort against wolves and other wildlife gave rise to a rogue agency, Wildlife Services, which continues to wage war against native wildlife today.

The Outcome of the War Against Wolves. The killers and the killing were far too thorough, with wolves virtually gone from the conterminous U.S. by the 1940s and 1950s. When the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, the gray wolf was among the first species protected under this law. The U.S. government was tasked with being the wolf’s friend rather than foe.

Ecological Restitution. It took a few decades to get started, but the federal government’s reintroduction of wolves to the Northern Rockies, as well as natural dispersal of wolves from Canada, has been a stunning biological success story. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that, at the end of 2011, there were at least 1,774 wolves in 109 breeding packs in the Northern Rockies. In the Western U.S., there are gray wolves in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, and occasionally in Utah and Colorado as well. New Mexico and Arizona have a special type of gray wolf, the Mexican wolf.

WolvesCurrent Situation. While wolves have gained ground in the past several decades in the western U.S., in recent years, there’s been a turn for the worse. Due to increasing pressure from a hostile but powerful few user groups:  the livestock industry and some hunting and gun clubs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service worked since 2008 to strip away protections for wolves in the Northern Rockies [link to Guardians’ wolf actions] and succeeding finally when Congress delisted Northern Rocky Mountain wolves through an illegal rider in April 2011. Currently, wolves in this region are now either at the mercy of state governments or headed that way, bringing serious doubts about whether the recovery program will ultimately be a success. To learn more about the failed policy process for Northern Rockies wolves, read NRM Wolves report, pages 15-20.

The War Against Wolves is Not Over. With more power in state hands, the result has been a return to the unsustainable violence against wolves that nearly eliminated them from the continental U.S. once before. In the 2011-2012 public hunting/trapping season in Idaho and Montana, 544 wolves have been killed so far, either by shooting or trapping. (Idaho’s hunting season ends June 30th.)

Idaho and Montana have issued over 62,000 hunting tags on a wolf population that totaled less than 1,300 individuals. On top of this, more wolves were killed by government hunters. Once legal protections are removed for wolves in Wyoming, the floodgates to violence against wolves will be opened even wider.


Table 2

Wolves Killed by Sportsmen

in Idaho and Montana,

2011-2012 Season

(data: August 30, 2011- May 15 2012; IDFG & MFWP) 


















WildEarth Guardians is working to give wolves the protections they need in the Northern Rockies and aims to bring back wolves to regions where they are missing. The Southern Rocky Mountains, including parts of Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico, could sustain a population of 1,000 wolves. Guardians is also on the frontlines working to ensure the recovery of the Mexican wolf.

The history of human and wolf deserves more space than we’ve given it here. Read up on the gray wolf. Some materials to get you started are:

photo credit: Gray Wolf: Ray Rafiti