Gray wolves (Canis lupus) run through fresh snow in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. The gray wolf was nearly poisoned to extinction in the contiguous U.S., but conservation efforts have grown the population to about 5,500 wolves.
Intelligent and highly social, wolves fascinate us as the untamed predecessors to Man’s Best Friend. But the relationship between humans and wolves has not always been so reverential, especially in the United States.
Through the early 1900s, populations of Canis lupus, the gray wolf, shrank from estimated historical highs of 2 million to near-extinction in the lower 48 states, largely a result of expanded human settlement in the western U.S. and large-scale poisonings meant to protect livestock.
In 1973, the gray wolf was classified as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, and after decades of conservation efforts, wolves are doing well in the U.S. Current estimates peg the gray wolf population in the lower 48 at around 5,500—with at least 7,000 more in Alaska. In fact, a pack of wolves recently planted roots in Siskiyou County, California, the first wolfpack in modern Californian history.
“The gray wolf is in no danger of being endangered, biologically,” says Dave Mech, a senior research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey.
But controversy still swirls around the gray wolf’s conservation status. In 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed removing the gray wolf from the federal list of endangered species, a move it says reflects the wolves’ rebound. But animal rights groups and environmental organizations have decried the very thought, unsuccessfully petitioning the Service to maintain national protections for the gray wolf. Meanwhile, ranchers in the northwestern United States have pushed for rollbacks to state-level wolf protections.
In fact, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined to comment about the gray wolf, due to ongoing litigation with conservationists over the Mexican gray wolf, a rare subspecies. And given the wolf’s status as both a possible scourge to ranchers and an ecological marvel to environmentalists, the debate is “always going to be contentious,” says Mech.
Yet the allure of the wolf will endure, as it always has in the public’s imagination. “I think there’s a certain aesthetic beauty to [wolves],” says Mech, that defines “their charismatic nature.”
In honor of National Wolf Awareness Week, which begins October 11, we take a closer look at the fascinating ways in which wolves around the world eke out a living.