The Gray Wolf written by Andrew Smith, volunteer

The gray wolf (Canis lupus) is a medium sized, carnivorous mammal almost universally accepted as the ancestor of the domestic dog.  It generally weighs between 60 and 145 pounds and lives from 8 to 13 years in the wild.  Its prey consists primarily of mammals, ranging in size from the mighty moose to rodents and hares.  Wolves hunt in packs, averaging from 5 to 8 individuals.

While wolves were abundant in North America before the arrival of European settlers, their populations were reduced-and in many places eliminated-by sport and pelt hunting, conversion of forest to farmland, and the perception (often true) that they were a threat to livestock. By the mid-20th century, the species, while abundant in Alaska and backcountry Canada, was restricted to northern Minnesota within the 48 contiguous states.

With the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973, government policy and popular opinion began to reflect a growing concern for the welfare of animals as well as humans.  In early 1995, gray wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park, against the wishes of many ranchers living in the vicinity of the park.  This restored the wolf as an apex predator in Yellowstone and helped bring back a balance among plant and animal life in northwestern Wyoming.  Perhaps more importantly, the Yellowstone wolves reproduced rapidly and branched out into neighboring states.  In all of the states where they have returned, a conflict exists between people who value the welfare of wildlife and people who view wolves as a threat to the local economy because they prey on livestock.  Some people also fear wolves as a threat to humans, but most scientists do not believe wolves see them as prey.

In the North Country of New York, gray wolves were last reliably sighted in the 1890s.  Until a wolf was shot and killed north of Great Sacandaga Lake in 2001, the consensus was that they were extirpated in New York State.  Additionally, wolves were killed in northern Vermont in 1998 and 2006.  Scientists are certain that these three were wild animals and not escaped captives.  However, they were unable to determine where they originated.  Some scientists believe that, if the animals came from the “upper Great Lakes or Ontario’s Algonquin Park”, that “it is likely that others will follow”.

While numbers of wolves in the North Country are certainly low, advocates for reintroduction exist in the area.  In addition to the fact that they are an apex predator and would restore ecological balance, these advocates believe wolves would bring tourists to the region, just as “moose and bald eagles do.”  But the state Department of Environmental Conservation has said it is not planning to reintroduce the animals because of “lack of funding and personnel.”  It is said that regulations would need to be implemented to prevent hunters from mistaking wolves for coyotes, a species which is abundant and which can be hunted without limit and with a longer hunting season than deer or any other animals.

While no one can be certain about what would happen in the Adirondacks if wolves were reintroduced, some experts point to the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone as a positive impact on the local ecosystem.  They mention that the killing of elk by wolves has restored vegetation, which has in turn brought back rodents and birds, in turn bringing back coyotes.  Bauer (find source) says the return of wolves has saved “riverside vegetation” by preventing overgrazing.

The federal government lists gray wolves as an endangered species in the lower 48 states (but not Alaska).  The US Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed “de-listing” them on account of their recovery in the Rocky Mountain states.  Joe Racette, New York state Department of Environmental Conservation biologist, would prefer to “(retain) viable populations of the species that are currently present in New York”.  Some biologists are also concerned that wolves could migrate to low-lying areas with farms, chasing deer and then moving on to livestock.  Reintroducing wolves would require cooperation from neighboring states and support from a wide range of people, not only environmental activists.

Wolf sightings have been reported in many locales over the years, but physical evidence has “generally been lacking”.  In my opinion, however, a lack of physical evidence does not prove that they are not there, as humans do not get to see all of what happens in the wild.  It is in the Upper Midwest, around Lake Superior in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, that the largest and most stable population of wild wolves lives in the United States.  There, an estimated 4500 animals roam the forests in much the same way that their ancestors did when the whole North American continent was wild, many centuries ago.

The wolf is one of North America’s most fascinating animals, and its conservation is a boon to the public interest and-potentially-to the economies of states in which they live.  Yet it is important to maintain a balance between nature and our need as human beings for livestock.  It will be a challenge in the coming years to allow for the conservation of wolves while also allowing farmers and ranchers to make a living.

Interesting Facts about Gray Wolves

Wolves have 42 teeth

Wolves run on their toes (like dogs and cats)

Wolf pups have blue eyes until 8 months, then yellow

Wolves mate for life

Wolf pups are deaf, blind, and one pound at birth

Adult wolves can eat up to 20 pounds of meat at once

Wolves can swim up to 8 miles

Wolves will respond to humans who imitate their howls