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The Challenge and Opportunity of Recovering Wolf Populations

History and Persecution

Originally, gray wolves were distributed throughout the northern hemisphere in every habitat where large ungulates were found. Saturating most of the region between 20°N latitude (mid-Mexico and India) and the North Pole, in temperatures from -40° to +40°C, the wolf inhabited areas as diverse as Israel and Greenland.

Every kind of northern ungulate, as well as beavers (Castor canadensis) and arctic hares (Lepus arcticus), can serve as prey for wolves, and wolves easily switch their prey from wild to domestic species. Conflict between wolves and humans over domestic animals probably became an issue soon after ungulates were domesticated.

As firearms, poisons, and traps were developed, they were used ruthlessly against wolves with devastating effectiveness (Young & Goldman 1944). In Eurasia, most wolf populations reached their lowest point between the 1930s and the 1960s (Pimlott 1975; Delibes 1990; Promberger & Bibikov 1993). In the more-developed regions of Eurasia, wolves disappeared except in the central Appenine Mountains of Italy, the Cantabrian mountains of northern Spain, the Carpathians of Eastern Europe, the northern parts of the former Soviet Union, and the central plains and mountainous regions of Asia. Some populations also remained in the deserts of the Middle East. In North America, wolf numbers were lowest in the late 1950s. Populations survived primarily in Canada and Alaska (Mech 1970). In the 48 contiguous United States, only the wilderness of northern Minnesota and nearby Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior held wolves.

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