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The Challenge and Opportunity of Recovering Wolf Populations

Wolf Recovery

As more was learned about the wolf, the increasingly urbanized public continued to favor wolf recovery. Even though illegal taking of wolves persists in local areas of North America and Europe, it has not been sufficient to prevent wolf population growth. In Minnesota, some 75% of the public viewed the wolf favorably (Kellert 1986), a statistic that may be mirrored in much of the northern hemisphere.

Minnesota's wolf population, now probably about 2000 based on trend estimates by Fuller et al. (1992), proliferated into neighboring Wisconsin and Michigan (Thiel 1978; Mech et al. 1995b), where they currently number over 100 (Mech et al. 1995a). Other Minnesota wolves eventually spread into the Dakotas (Licht & Fritts 1994). Canadian wolves were no longer killed when they reached Montana, and they began to recolonize the Glacier National Park area (Ream & Mattson 1982). One pair even raised pups among a herd of cattle on the prairies of the Rockies' eastern front (Diamond 1994). Montana now supports an estimated 70 wolves, and additional animals from Canada are entering Idaho and Washington state (Mech et al. 1995a).

Europe has seen the same trend. In Italy the wolf population responded to the protection resulting from the research and educational effort of Boitani (1986) and increased to 300 individuals that inhibit even areas around the outskirts of Rome. In Spain wolf numbers reached 1500-2000 (Blanco et al. 1990), and in Poland about 850 (Bobek et al. 1993). Overflow from the former Soviet Union allowed a population of about 50 to develop in Finland (Pulliainen 1993), and eventually a nascent population developed that straddles Norway and Sweden, currently numbering 20-25 (Promberger et al. 1993a). Wolves are also spreading from northern Italy into France and from Poland into eastern Germany (Promberger et al. 1993b).

The much-improved public attitude toward wolves, coupled with publicity and law enforcement, have allowed the burgeoning wolf populations to use areas that had not been wolf habitat for decades, thus demonstrating the wolf's inherent adaptability. The wolf's new range includes areas of higher road density (Fuller et al. 1992) and much more open, accessible, and populated areas. Breeding packs now live less than 90 km from Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. One wolf was radio-tracked out of the forests in which it had been raised and into farm fields within 30 km of St. Paul's center (Wydeven 1994). The animal roamed the farmlands for several weeks before returning to forest. Other wolves making their way south of Minneapolis and St. Paul are being killed by cars or shot when mistaken for coyotes (Canis latrans). Wolves dispersing into North and South Dakota have been crossing great expanses of open areas (Licht & Fritts 1994).

In Spain wolves live like coyotes in wheat and sunflower fields in regions with human densities of up to 200 people per km² (Vila et al. 1993). The animals scavenge garbage and livestock remains and hunt smaller mammals. In Canada, Alaska, Scandinavia, the Mideast, and much of Asia, wolf numbers are stable or increasing (Ginsberg & Macdonald 1990).

Given protection, wolves can expand their range rapidly (Fuller et al. 1992). Average litter sizes reach five to six (Mech 1970). The territorial packs produce young each year, and maturing individuals disperse (Fritts & Mech 1981; Gese & Mech 1991) distances that may exceed 800 km straightline (Fritts 1983). They search out mates and begin new packs (Rothman & Mech 1979) in new areas (Ream et al. 1991).

As wolves dispersed from wildernesses, they successfully contended with highways, traffic, residences, habitat fragmentation, and other human disturbances (Mech et al. unpublished data). Some probably were unable to adapt, especially the first waves. Nevertheless, wolves that did settle semiwilderness areas probably became more habituated to the increased disturbances, and as a population then adapted more to increasing disturbance.

In Italy, Spain, and Portugal, where much of the wolf's food is comprised of garbage, wolves have long inhabited the wooded mountains during the day and made their way into rural villages to scavenge at night (Zimen & Boitani 1979). In North America, ungulate population densities are high close to population centers. Thus, wolves have plentiful natural prey when they move to new, nonwilderness areas.

As wolves show up in new regions they gather new constituencies that support their recovery. In Europe the European Wolf Network dedicated to the recovery of the wolf in central Europe (Promberger & Schroder 1993) became a branch of the IUCN Wolf Specialist Group in 1992. Other organizations have formed in North America that call for the reintroduction of wolves into such places as Arizona, Colorado, northern New York, and New England.

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