When the Mayflower landed in 1620, an estimated two million gray wolves ranged North America. As European settlers moved west and their livestock was attacked, a campaign of hunting, trapping and poisoning to eradicate wolves began. By 1930, wolves had nearly disappeared from the Lower 48. In 1977 wolves were given Endangered Species Act protections. In 1987 a plan was finalized to restore them in the Northern Rockies by transplanting wolves from Canada into central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park. In 1995-96, 66 Canadian wolves were transplanted there with a goal of establishing 10 breeding pairs in each of three recovery zones in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming for three consecutive years. Then wolf management was to be handed to the states.
Today the U.S. wolf population numbers 5,500-plus in the Lower 48, including 3,800 in the upper Great Lakes, 8,000 to 11,000 in Alaska and 60,000 in Canada. As their numbers increase, so does controversy over co-existence with humans.
Wolves 101 Wolves may eat 20 pounds of meat per day. Elk comprise 92 percent of wolf kills during the winter. Other prey include moose, caribou, deer, beaver, hares and livestock. In 1995, when wolves were first re-introduced to the Northern Rockies, there were 19,000 elk in the Northern Yellowstone herd. By 2008, the herd numbered 5,000. The moose herd in that area also dropped from more than 1,000 to somewhere between 100 and 300.
Similarly, in 1994 there were 9,729 elk in District 10 of the Lolo Basin in Idaho, and 3,832 in District 12. By 2010, the elk herd in District 10 plummeted to 1,473, and in District 12 only 705 elk remained.
By 2002 the population goal for delisting was met for three straight years, but lawsuits filed by animal rights extremists slowed the process. In 2008 wolves were delisted in the Northern Rockies, allowing hunting, though wolves remain protected in the upper Great Lakes. In protected areas, wolves only can be legally killed if they are attacking people—not pets or livestock.
Occasionally, wolves engage in killing sprees. As reported by this website, National Geographic and other sources in March 2016, a pack of nine wolves killed 19 elk near Bondurant, Wyo. Seventeen were calves. As NRAHLF.org contributor Phil Phillips noted, many have called the federal management of wolves into question as problems with wolves in several Western states escalate, adversely impacting the region’s elk populations.
According to ethologist Dr. Valerius Geist, wolves follow a sequential attack pattern when prey and/or habitat is scarce and they are undeterred. They begin approaching homes at night, then they appear in daylight, observing people and livestock from a distance. Growing bolder, they attack small livestock and pets, then move on to large livestock, following riders on horseback and looking into porch windows. Though they retreat if confronted, they ultimately begin attacking people. Geist’s model, which doesn’t include rabid wolves, has been confirmed in Europe, Asia and North America.
A likely reason there aren’t more wolf attacks on humans in North America is that many people own firearms. As noted by the New York Times, attacks increase in parts of the world where firearm ownership is minimal.
The Coyote Connection Wolves and coyotes are part of the Canis genus of wild dogs. Wolves can weigh more than 100 pounds. Coyotes typically weigh 20-45 pounds. When gray wolves encounter coyotes, they kill them, chase them away or mate with them.
Originally coyotes dwelled in the open plains west of the Mississippi River. As settlers killed off wolves, coyotes moved east. By the mid-1800s coyotes spanned from Alaska to Panama. Millions now roam North America. Coyotes can band together to take down animals as large as elk and deer.
Though 500,000 coyotes are killed annually, they thrive in all states except Hawaii and in all Canadian provinces. Average litter sizes are five to six pups, but litters can include 10 or more where populations are suppressed. Coyotes in rural areas live about two and a half years, but in cities such as Chicago, Minneapolis, Los Angeles and New York City, where they cannot be hunted, they can reach age 13.
Hybrids weren’t mentioned when the ESA was passed in 1973. In 1977 hybrids were included, but since 1983 hybrids aren’t protected by the ESA. Shooting coyotes is legal where permitted, but wolves are different. In the Northern Rockies, wolves are hunted. Elsewhere they legally cannot be killed unless they attack you. Because of hybridization, one cannot tell the difference between a purebred and hybrid without genetic testing. There are an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 wolf-dogs nationwide with wolf-dog hybrids among the top canines known to attack humans.
On Oct. 27, 2009, Canadian Taylor Mitchell was hiking in Nova Scotia when she was killed by two “eastern coyotes.” DNA analysis of the attacking canids found they were hybrids. According to geneticists, there may not be any purebred wolves in the eastern United States. “Eastern coyotes, which are larger, are ‘coy-wolves.’ Eastern wolves have about 25 to 50 percent coyote, and 10 percent dog genes. Red wolves have about 75 percent coyote genes and 25 percent wolf genes. Canadian Algonquin wolves are about 32 percent coyote. Quebec wolves are more than 50 percent coyote. Ontario wolves are about 50 percent gray wolf, 50 percent coyote.” (For more on how the DNA has changed, click here.)
Canines also carry zoonotic diseases. Rabies is the most common followed by hydatid disease, Echinocistus granulosus. The hydatid tapeworm weakens the ungulate, which is an intermediate host. People can be exposed through the feces of canines that eat the ungulates. Reports indicate at least 68 percent of the wolves in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming that were tested for Echinococcus granulosus were infected. In some areas the infection rate reached 84 percent.
The Need to Keep All Game Species in Balance In his new book, “The Real Wolf,” Texas attorney Ted B. Lyon shows that co-existing with wolves is costly. Lyon says the cost of wolf reintroduction into the Northern Rockies was roughly $104,000 per wolf. And in 2010 wolves killed over 8,000 head of cattle in the United States at an average cost of $1,000 per cow—a loss of $8,000,000 to the cattle industry. However, since only one in seven cows killed is found, the industry’s total loss is estimated at $56,000,000. This doesn’t include revenue loss for hunting guides, outfitters, local businesses and states from decreased hunting license sales.
And, according to the Equal Access to Justice Act, anti-hunting-extremist attorneys who sue the U.S. Government and win can request $125 per hour for reimbursement of legal fees. Such costly suits weaken federal agencies, making them easier targets for more lawsuits. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has tried to delist wolves in the Great Lakes region for nearly 10 years, but animal rights groups remain set to fight the move in court.
Clearly, wolf and coyote management is, in part, people management. In the meantime, America’s wildlife managers are tasked with making sure sound judgment prevails in decisions regarding the management of all wildlife species—predator and prey species alike.