Gray wolves have roamed North America for at least half a million years. Their habitat once included most of the continental United States. But during the 1800s and early 1900s, wolves were hunted to near extinction. By the 1960s, the U.S. wolf population was limited to a handful of creatures.
Then, in 1973, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) became law. It protects animals that are at risk of becoming extinct. Gray wolves were placed on the endangered-species list. Killing them was illegal. And the U.S. government worked to support wolf conservation . A famous example of this effort began in 1995. Thirty-one wolves were moved from Canada to Yellowstone National Park. By 2015, more than 500 gray wolves were living in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
Today, the continental U.S. is home to more than 6,000 gray wolves. On January 4, 2021, the U.S. government removed gray wolves from the endangered-species list. Usually, an animal’s delisting would be cause for celebration. But some say the predators still need protection.
A Difference of Opinion
“Wolves are controversial,” Adrian Treves told TIME for Kids. He’s a wolf expert at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “People can’t agree about their protected status or whether they’re actually safe and secure.”
In some parts of the country, wolves are doing well. But overall, they occupy much less land than before. Wolves used to live across most of the U.S. Now they’re in fewer than a dozen states.
Experts disagree about the goal of the ESA. Some say the law should protect an animal until it has reclaimed its original area. Others argue that as long as a species is not at risk of extinction, it doesn’t belong on the endangered-species list.
David Bernhardt was secretary of the interior in October 2020. That’s when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced its plan to delist the gray wolf. According to Bernhardt, the wolf “is neither a threatened nor [an] endangered species.”
But Jason Rylander, of Defenders of Wildlife, disagrees. He worries that the wolf population will drop again: “We have to ask, ‘Is the work of recovery really done for this species?’ In our view, it’s not. There are still too many places where the population hasn’t come back.”
Environmental groups are suing the government over its decision to remove the gray wolf from the endangered-species list. Rylander hopes that no matter what, people and wolves can live together peacefully. His group is finding ways to make that happen. These include portable wire fences to keep wolves away from livestock.
For now, protection of nearly all wolves is up to the states. In November 2020, Colorado passed a law that would protect the wolves within its borders.
Gray Wolf Facts
The gray wolf is a fierce predator. It has long teeth and powerful jaws. It can chase prey at more than 35 miles per hour. A typical male weighs about 100 pounds. It’s more than six feet long. (That includes its bushy tail, which is one or two feet long.)
Wolves live in packs of up to 30 adults and pups. They communicate with one another using facial expressions and the positions of their bodies and tails. Howling helps members of a pack stay in touch.