The gray wolf is a resilient animal that has a knack for traveling incredible distances and repopulating new territories. It was once the most widely distributed mammal on the planet (the red is the original home range of the gray wolf, the green is its current range). Earlier this month the federal government handed over wolf management responsibilities to five states by removing the wolf from the endangered species list, marking an important step in its comeback in North America. Here’s a look at how far the species has come, and where it might go next.
The Illinois border is almost 200 miles from any established wolf packs in Wisconsin, but wolves have been popping up in the state since 2002 when one was killed in Marshall county. Since then, at least four wolves have been killed in Illinois, mostly by coyote hunters who misidentify them. There aren’t many large stretches of true wilderness in Illinois, but in the last decade, wolves have proved their ability to thrive alongside humans if given the chance.
After initially identifying the animal as a coyote, the Missouri Department of Conservation recently announced that a 104-pound wolf had been killed in November 2010 by a deer hunter (he also thought it was a coyote at first). “For years, we have believed and told people that there were no wild wolves in Missouri,” said Conservation Department wildlife research biologist Dave Hamilton. “We can’t say that anymore.” But this isn’t the first time that a wolf was mistakenly killed by a deer hunter in Missouri. In 2001 a bowhunter arrowed an 80-pound wolf that had traveled hundreds of miles from northern Wisconsin.
Earlier this month state officials announced that Wisconsin has reached a modern-era record for wolves: more than 825 animals in at least 200 established packs. The Badger state had a recovery goal of 350 wolves, but that number was passed years ago. In recent years wolves have moved south from the remote reaches of the North Woods into mixed woods/agricultural habitat. The animals are still listed as endangered in Wisconsin, but state game officials are working on delisting the Great Lakes region gray wolves.
Minnesota has more wolves than any other Lower 48 state (about 3,000), but the animals are still endangered there. What’s worse is that the recent delisting vote from Congress cut funding for the federal wildlife services program that investigates wolf complaints and kills problem wolves in the state. The program reportedly had a $727,000 budget and investigated 272 wolf complaints last year. It trapped or shot 192 problem wolves. Since wolves are still endangered in Minnesota, state officials are not able to kill them, which puts the state in a serious bind. Most experts believe wolves will be delisted in the Great Lakes region by this winter, but that may be too late for farmers and the cash-strapped state. Minnesota has a plan to reimburse farmers for damages done by wolves, but the program is only backed by $100,000.
Michigan’s Upper Peninsula has a population of more than 500 gray wolves, But now wolves are also moving into the Lower Peninsula. Last month wildlife officials confirmed at least two wolves in the LP and one was killed in Presque Isle County in 2004. It’s likely that the wolves migrated from the UP across the frozen Straits of Mackinac to the LP during the winter time. In February the DNR started a month-long survey in an attempt to find out just how many wolves now live in the Lower Peninsula. Photo: US FWS
North Dakota
North Dakota is sandwiched between the two big wolf states, Montana and Minnesota, but officially, there are no wild wolves in the Roughrider State. However, the animals have been popping up there since the 1990s. Each year the Game and Fish department receives a handful of wolf sitings reports and recently a 80-pound wolf was mistakenly shot along the North Dakota/Minnesota border. Most wolves filter into the state from Minnesota, but biologists say they could also make their way from western Manitoba and possibly even Montana. Photo: US FWS
If wolves ever repopulate the East they will probably start in Maine, and some say they already have. According to the Maine Wolf Coalition, there have been more than 90 wolf sightings in the state over the last few years and one wolf was killed by a hunter who mistook it for a coyote in 1993. The state’s expansive wilderness and low human population make it a likely spot for initial wolf packs to take root. But the state DNR is skeptical: “Tracks and other evidence suggest there may be additional wolf-like canids in the state, but there is no conclusive evidence of reproduction or establishment of packs. Given the physical barrier to dispersal from Quebec posed by the St. Lawrence River, unsuitable agricultural habitat in southern Quebec, and liberal wolf trapping regulations in Quebec, it is highly unlikely that wolves can naturally recolonize Maine.” There are a handful of environmental groups currently looking to reintroduce wolves to Maine and the Adirondack Mountains in New York. Photo: caninest
Congress recently delisted Gray wolves in Utah along with four other western states (Idaho, Montana, Washington and Oregon). Wolf sightings have been reported in Utah for years, but state officials never confirmed the sightings until 2010 when wolves killed sheep and a dog in two different instances. The Beehive State is ready for Canis Lupus. In 2005 it established a board to oversee wolf policy and its plan includes a “limited wolf population growth.” Don Peay, spokesperson for Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife and Big Game Forever told the Salt Lake Tribune, “[Wolf populations] are growing exponentially, and it will get worse, not better.” For More on the Delisting:
The Downside of the Wolf Delisting
Wolves to be Delisted as Endangered Species Photo: US Army Environmental Command
Oregon is home to at least 20 wolves split into at least two different breeding packs. The relatively small number of wolves has already caused some trouble, in 2010 they killed 8 calves. The state Legislature is dealing with a variety of wolf bills that would establish a compensation program for farmers, create population objectives for wolves and allow a person to kill a wolf out of self defense. Photo: Jim Peaco, National Park Service
Wolves keep trickling into Northeast Washington from Idaho and British Columbia. The state confirmed two established packs in 2010 and there is a known third pack that hangs out on the Washington/Idaho/British Colombia border. Two breeding adults of the first Washington pack, named the Lookout Pack, produced six pups in 2008 and 4 pups in 2009. Photo: Metassus
New Mexico/Arizona
The Mexican Gray wolf is a rare subspecies of wolf that was reintroduced to Arizona and New Mexico in the late 1990s. It once roamed through areas of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Mexico, but now is reserved to a stretch of national forest split between New Mexico and Arizona. The Mexican Gray wolf’s reintroduction was not as successful (or unsuccessful depending on how you look at it) as the reintroductions in the Northern Rockies, but nevertheless, there are now about 50 animals between the two states, with their peak population hitting 59 in 2006. Last month Rep. Steve Pearce of New Mexico brought forward a bill that could eliminate funding for the recovery program.
Many believe it’s only a matter of time before wolf packs establish themselves in Northern Colorado. In 2007 wildlife officials caught a wolf on camera and one was killed on Interstate 70 just 30 miles west of Denver in 2004. In one of the more famous cases of a rambling wolf, a radio-collared female was found near Meeker, Colo. after traveling a 1,000-mile route that covered five states. The wolf started her journey in the Yellowstone region. Photo: Daniel Stahler, National Park Service
South Dakota
It’s not uncommon for Minnesota wolves to explore eastern South Dakota, and one was shot (mistakenly for a coyote) north of Woonsocket this winter. A year earlier another wolf was mistakenly killed by a hunter in the Northeastern corner of the state. “Minnesota has a healthy wolf population, so it’s not uncommon for young male wolves to periodically wander into the Dakotas,” Wildlife Conservation Officer Chris Kuntz said in a press statement. “Young male wolves are often pushed out of a pack and will simply wander across country. They usually don’t spend much time in any one location and generally move out of an area within a few days from when they’re first sighted.” Photo: National Park Service
Thanks to the wolf delisting earlier this month, Montana will host its second wolf hunt in decades this fall. According to the Missoulan, the hunt quota is expected to increase a bit from the goals last year – game officials were set to allow hunters to take 186 animals in 2010, but that hunt was shut down by a court ruling. The game commission is scheduled to make its final quota decision in July, but meanwhile, elk populations continue to dwindle. The outlook is bleak in regions of the Bitterroot where elk numbers have plummeted from 2,000 to about 750. Montana has at least 566 wolves in 108 verified packs and the population increased by 8 percent in 2010.
The Cowboy State has at least 343 wolves, but the animals remain on the endangered species list there because the state refuses to designate them as a game animal. Under the current plan, wolves could be shot on sight across most of the state. This was a deal breaker for the U.S. F.W.S. so wolves remain on the list. But with the recent legislation passed by Congress, Wyoming lawmakers added language that allows them to file a lawsuit against the federal government on wolf issues and possibly win back the right to manage wolves at a state level. Photo: Metassus
Governor Butch Otter recently signed a bill that allows the state to declare a wolf “disaster emergency” if the situation worsens. This would allow local law enforcement to investigate wolf complaints and cull problem wolves. Idaho has more than 700 wolves in the state and has its sights set on a public hunt in the fall. The ruling by Congress allows Idaho to cut its wolf population to a minimum of 150 animals. During the state’s last wolf hunt in 2009, 188 animals were taken by hunters.

As states work to put wolf populations in check, new packs are popping up all over the country. Here’s a look at the state of the gray wolf in the U.S.