History and how to recognize gray wolves
Q: What area is included in the plan to remove wolves from the Endangered Species List?
A: Although most of the wolves are in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, the action would include Eastern Washington, Eastern Oregon and a small piece of north-central Utah. Wolves are spotted occasionally in Eastern Washington and are expected to become more common as packs fill suitable habitat elsewhere.
Q: Why are they endangered?
A: As America was settled, territories and states paid bounties on wolves and hired government contractors to kill them. As a result, biologists believe wolves were gone from the Northwest by the 1930s. By 1973, when they were listed as endangered, the only documented wolves south of Canada were in the northern tip of Minnesota and Michigan’s Isle Royale.
Q: What brought them back?
A: In 1995 and 1996, the federal government released 66 wolves from Canada into Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho. The wolves here now are the progeny of those transplants.
Part of the reason for the success: Wolves are prolific breeders. The alpha female in a pack has a litter each spring, and four or five of the pups typically survive.
As a pack grows, individuals split off to form new packs. And because each pack requires an area of 200 to 500 square miles, the species’ range is increasing rapidly.
Q: What kind of wolves are we talking about?
A: They are gray wolves, although in the Midwest they are often called timber wolves. Some people – typically those who opposed the restoration of wolves in the West – call them Canadian wolves, to emphasize their contention that the wolves don’t belong here.
The Mexican gray wolf is a subspecies that has been reintroduced to the Southwest. The red wolf is a separate species, native to the Southeast.
Q: How do I know if the animal I’m looking at is a wolf?
A: Dogs and other animals are often mistaken for wolves. But if you’re in the backcountry in a place where wolves are prevalent – fly-fishing on the roadless stretch of the St. Joe River, for instance, or hiking in Glacier National Park – there’s no reason to believe that the large, shy dog you just saw wasn’t a wolf.
Don’t be fooled by the color of the fur. Despite their name, gray wolves can vary from pure white to coal black.
Males average about 100 pounds but can weigh as much as 130; females weigh slightly less. They’re more than twice the size of a coyote.
Tracks are usually 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 inches long. Among domestic dogs, only St. Bernards, Great Danes and a few other breeds leave similarly sized tracks.
Q: What do they eat?
A: It depends on what’s available. In the West, they prey largely on deer and elk, but they’ll also eat other wild species and livestock.
Biologists in Yellowstone estimated in 2003 that packs were killing 15 elk a year for each wolf. About 40 percent of those dead elk were calves, 40 percent adult cows and 20 percent adult bulls.