Learn about the grey wolf
So much controversy surrounds the existence of the grey wolf, and other wild, free roaming wolf species. Human-wolf conflict has a long-standing history, driving wolves to near extinction in the early 20th Century. Having always been viewed as a threat to human safety and livestock, as competitors for game hunting, and traded for fur, wolves have long been seen as a pest species. As a consequence, the grey wolf – which is the most common and widespread of all wolf species – has been pushed out of its historic geographical range. From large territories across the northern hemisphere, they were forced to retreat into remote areas in order to avoid human encounters. It is only their incredible ability to adapt to different environments that enabled remnant populations to survive. Conservation and reintroduction programs were eventually introduced under protection from the Endangered Species Act of 1974 (America), and the Bern Convention in 1979 (Europe) which managed to successfully drive up population numbers.
The decline of a keystone species such as the wolf, can have wide-ranging effects on the health of the ecosystem. For example, predatory pressure keeps populations of prey species stable, helping to keep the ecosystem in balance.
Discarded prey carcasses bring nutrients back to the soil and provide food for scavengers such as weasels, lynx, grizzly bears, many bird species, and even beetles. A classic example of the delicate and ecologically important interactions between trophic levels can be seen with the reintroduction of the grey wolf to the Yellowstone National Park in 1995. Eradicated in 1926, the absence of grey wolf populations led to an overpopulation of its prey. One of the many cascading effects of this was the overgrazing of vegetation by growing deer populations. After the reintroduction, regeneration of vegetation proceeded not only to provide habitat and food for several other species, but also to recover stability for riverbeds and banks. Today, the grey wolf is no longer listed as endangered on the IUCN red list (International Union for the Conservation of Nature).
This success is based on recovery of global population numbers, however on a regional scale many grey wolf populations are still threatened.
They currently only cover 5-15% of their former geographical range indicating recovery in only a small number of restricted areas. In order to support genetic diversity and enable them to healthily sustain themselves, the connectivity between isolated wolf habitats is of great importance. However, human population growth and development have altered environments and other wildlife to a great extent, which makes it so much more challenging for these animals to recolonize in suitable habitat. With their prey largely consisting of large ungulates, depredation of livestock is one of the key drivers in motivating wolf killing, by both agencies and illegal activity. In order to diminish human-wildlife conflict, simple, non-lethal preventative methods such as electric fences, guard dogs and increased livestock security, as well as funded compensation and wild land preservation have been introduced in some areas. Possible areas for recolonization or reintroduction vary both regionally and globally in their habitat suitability. This may depend on proximity to human populations, the density of nearby human populations, size of available territories, abundance of prey, as well as on our tolerance for living alongside them. As all these factors vary greatly, legislative generalizations from different countries and regions are hard to maintain. Delisting the grey wolf let its protection fall to national laws which can differ from state to state, with some legally operating wolf hunts and control programs in North America and Europe even today. Many wolf populations roaming between territories, over borders are particularly vulnerable as legislations may protect them in one region but not another, and much hunting is conducted without necessary knowledge of ecology and population dynamics. This makes it less likely for wolves to migrate, and recover in areas they aren’t already inhabiting, and protected in.
Other wolf species including the Ethiopian wolf, and subspecies such as the Mexican grey wolf and the red wolf are in even greater need of protection, facing possibility of extinction in the wild.
All of these wolves face similar threats of habitat loss and fragmentation, absence of prey, and struggles with human conflict. The pressure on wild wolf populations remains, and while it can be extremely challenging for humans and wolves to coexist, the negative implications of once again losing large numbers of wolves is a very high ecological risk to take. If you would like to help out and support local or international wolf populations through conservation efforts, there is always the chance to visit, volunteer at, and donate to organisations and eco-tourism. Politics plays a huge role in conservation management, and simply informing yourself and reaching out to others might awaken more interest. While wolves are top predators and should be treated with respect and caution, there remains to be an exaggerated fear instilled in us of encountering wolves in the wild. The risk of human attack is very low, with your chances actually being higher of being killed by a bee sting.
Species Fun Fact
Wolves howl to communicate with each other over long distances. By howling together and varying their tones and pitches, a wolf pack is able to seem larger than it is. This comes in handy when avoiding possible confrontation.
For reference, or to find out more please explore the following:
Kaartinen, S., Kojola, I. and Colpaert, A., 2005, January. Finnish wolves avoid roads and settlements. In Annales Zoologici Fennici (pp. 523-532). Finnish Zoological and Botanical Publishing Board.
Linnell, J., Trouwborst, A. and Fleurke, F., 2017, September. When is it acceptable to kill a strictly protected carnivore? Exploring the legal constraints on wildlife management within Europe’s Bern convention. In Exploring the Legal Constraints on Wildlife Management within Europe’s Bern Convention (September 13, 2017) (Vol. 12, No. 21, pp. 129-157).
Mech, L.D., 2017. Where can wolves live and how can we live with them?. Biological conservation, 210, pp.310-317.
All information was collected and up to date in 2020.