Alpha female 903 of the San Mateo pack kept alpha status for the 11 years of her pack's existence at the time of her death in late Nov. 2015. She was 13 years old, four years older than the average wild wolf.
Exterminated from the Yellowstone National Park area since the 1920s, Gray Wolves were reintroduced by scientists after a more than 70 year absence. In late 1994, early 1995 and again in 1996, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, along with Canadian wildlife biologists, captured 31 wolves in Canada and relocated and released them in Yellowstone and central Idaho. Fourteen of the wolves came from the Hinton, Alberta area and seventeen others originated from Pink Mountain near Fort St. John, British Columbia. As of December 2014, Yellowstone's wolf population numbers 104 animals within 11 packs.
Yellowstone's ecosystem crumbled without wolves and thrived with their reintroduction. According to the Yellowstone Park Foundation, the affects of wolf extermination were alarming while the beneficial affects of reintroduction surpassed even scientists' expectations.
The elk population within the park more than doubled once their main predator was gone. Since elk are grazers and browsers, eating grass, shrubs and trees, they overgrazed the park, affecting even the riverbanks. No longer vulnerable near rivers, they gathered in great herds and gorged themselves faster than the shrubs could grow. The mass of hooves eroded the riverbanks and rivers and streams clouded with soil.
Fish were left with murky water. Beavers couldn't build dams without clean water and trees. Amphibians and otters, also affected by the murky water, lacked the protection they'd enjoyed from the beaver dams. Mouse and rabbit populations declined drastically since these animals could no longer use plants to hide from predators. Grizzly bears suffered as the elk ate much of their berry supply, which they needed to build up fat before hibernation. Pollinators like bees and hummingbirds had fewer flowers to feed on and songbird populations dropped as they had less trees to nest in.
Once wolves returned and their numbers grew, Yellowstone's elk population dropped from about 17,000 pre-wolf-reintroduction to about 6,000 by 2011. Since in nature only the most fit and healthiest animals survive, the elk population today is actually more robust than it was prior to their main predator's return. And the wolves' elk kills mean more carcasses for scavengers such as coyotes, eagles and ravens. Benefiting from both elk kills as food and the higher berry supply, grizzly bear numbers have climbed.
Riverbank trees like Aspen and Willow are regenerating due to the elk's fear of exposure to wolves at riverbanks. They can grow to five times their original size in just six years. Bigger trees along the river mean greater root structures, stronger riverbanks, less erosion and clean water. Beaver are now thriving with clean water and large trees. They can now build damns which create new habitats for fish, amphibians, reptiles and otters. Songbirds are returning to Yellowstone because they now have places to nest.
Reintroduced Gray Wolves have rebalanced and restored Yellowstone National Park. Their reintroduction has had trickle down effects, which scientists call a "trophic cascade." The wolves' presence has even helped humans. Residents in Billings, Montana now have cleaner drinking water, which comes from Yellowstone River. Already in 2005, now more than a decade ago, the more than 100,000 visitors who went to Yellowstone just to see the wolves, pumped $30 million into the local economy.
Transporting wolves into the Gila Wilderness 2005 / U.S.F.W.S.
Wolves arrive in Yellowstone via truck on Jan. 12, 1995 / National Park Service
WOLF RECOVERY AND REINTRODUCTION
Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery
Red Wolf Recovery
Mexican wolf pups in the wild / Mexican Wolf Interagency Field Team
Yellowstone Wolf Reintroduction
Alpha male Mexican wolf and a bear / Mexican Wolf Interagency Field Team
Wolves in shipping crates arrive to holding pens by bobsled / National Park Service
Credit: Alan Berner / The Seattle Times
Wolf released into one of reintroduction pens in 1995 / National Park Service
Ranking second in pup/future alpha production, she produced nine litters of at least 23 pups, with seven later becoming alpha wolves. She successfully maintained her pack through two translocation events and the loss of three alpha males. She produced her last litter in 2014 at the age of 12, a single female pup.
Credit: Alan Berner / The Seattle Times
Female Red Wolf in captivity
Wolves in reintroduction pen prior to release/ National Park Service
"Casanova" wolf 302M in Yellowstone
Credit: Wolf Haven International
Mexican Gray Wolf with her pups
The Mexican wolf, Canis lupus baileyi, is the rarest and most genetically distinct subspecies of Gray Wolf in North America. Once common and roaming throughout vast portions of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Mexico, extermination rendered it functionally extinct in the southwest U.S. and it was only occasionally reported in Mexico. All but eliminated in the wild by the 1970s, it was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 1976. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided to lead a recovery effort to bring it back from the brink of extinction.
The U.S. and Mexico established a bi-national captive breeding program with several wolves captured in Mexico between 1977 and 1980. Mexican wolves are unique, weighing an average of only 50 to 80 pounds. Five and a half feet from nose to tail, they stand 28 to 32 inches at the shoulder. Their distinctive richly colored coat of buff, gray, rust and black is often marked with distinguishing facial patterns. Unlike other subspecies of Gray Wolf, there are no solid black or white variations.
The Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Plan was approved in 1982. It stated that de-listing may never be possible due to the perilous status of Mexican wolves at the time and uncertainty whether captive-reared wolves could successfully be returned to the wild. But the captive program grew and demonstrated increasing success through the 1980s. In January 1988 Mexican wolves were designated as a "Nonessential Experimental Population" allowing for greater management flexibility than if they'd retained the fully endangered designation. The recovery program could more easily address conflict situations such as livestock depredations or nuisance behavior.
On March 29, 1988, eleven captive-reared Mexican wolves were released into the wild for the first time in the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area. As of May 2016, it's estimated that 97 Mexican wolves roam the wild.
The Red Wolf, Canis rufus, is a distinct species from Canis lupus, the Gray Wolf. One of the world's most endangered canids, it was once common throughout the eastern and southcentral United States. It was decimated in the early part of the 20th Century by intensive predator control programs and degradation and alteration of its habitat. Red Wolves were designated an endangered species in 1973.
Due to the Red Wolf Recovery Program, it's estimated that as of May 2016 between 45 and 60 Red Wolves roam the wild in their native habitats in eastern North Carolina. These inhabit a five-county area covering 1.7 million acres. Nearly 200 more are held in more than 40 captive breeding facilities throughout the United States.
Sadly, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service halted the Red Wolf Recovery Program in 2015. They've indefinitely suspended plans to introduce more Red Wolves while the effectiveness and impact of the program is investigated. Official press releases and interviews state they are taking this time to "rebuild trust" with the recovery program's opponents.
Soon after the 1980s introduction, several young red wolves began attacking farm animals and threatening hunters. According to the USFWS, these problem animals are far from the norm, with their overall impact on the region heavily overshadowed by the work of coyotes and hybrid species such as coywolves, wolf and coyote crosses. Recent restrictions on coyote hunting to avoid mistaken Red Wolf shootings - the two species look very similar - have only exacerbated the issue.
The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) demanded the USFWS take a hard look at the Red Wolf recovery program. Consequently, a review by the non-profit Wildlife Management Institute (WMI) was completed in November of 2014. In addition to the conclusion that more review is needed, the WMI recommends upgrades to the wolves' radio collars before any new wolves are released. Improvements for more accurate tracking would allow officials to quickly identify problem wolves for recapture, even as the rest of the population learned to stay out of trouble.
With no concrete dates for when the recovery program will resume, conservationists feel this is abandonment of an endangered species. Many say the USFWS is preparing the public for the Red Wolf's eventual extinction in the wild.
The photo at right is of a Red Wolf found shot in Washington County, North Carolina on Nov. 18, 2013. It was the fifth Red Wolf killed or missing in less than a month as locals mounted resistance to the reintroduction.