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NY: The long, hard journey of the gray wolf

By JOE HACKETT – Outdoors Columnist

Earlier this year, policymakers at the U.S. Department of the Interior listened as witness after witness offered passionate and often tearful testimony in an effort to convince the agency to maintain the wolf’s status on the endangered species list. At the time, the agency had proposed to remove protections that had been provided by the Endangered Species Act.

Above the hubris of protesters, the agency Director stated the obvious when he claimed, “No animal engenders more polarizing emotion amongst Americans than does the wolf.

“We see powerful emotions on both sides of this debate. But I think, regardless of our positions, I think we all can recognize recovery of the wolf is one of the greatest conservation success stories in the history of our nation.”

There are very few animals that stir our emotions as much as the wolf, an animal that has been universally scorned and hunted for centuries. Hatred of the species has been ingrained into our society via fairy tales, ranging from Little Red Riding Hood to the Three Little Pigs. They are portrayed as vile, dangerous and cunning creatures that eat babies and kill wantonly.

Less than a century ago, gray wolves were so universally reviled that even the esteemed conservationist William Hornaday, founder of The Bronx Zoo and the Wildlife Conservation Society, explained, “Of all the wild creatures in North America, none are more despicable than wolves.”

As a result of such bad public relations, it’s no wonder we hate wolves, even though they maintain the most highly evolved social structures of all animals.

Prior to the arrival of European settlers, wolves occupied nearly all of North America, except for parts of the southeast. However, these populations rapidly diminished as a result of hunting and trapping. As settlements expanded, wolves continued to do what wolves will do, feasting on both livestock and game.

Eventually, bounties were awarded for their carcasses and the hunt was on. By the mid-20th century, gray wolves in the continental United States were confined to a small sliver of northern Minnesota and to the barrens of Michigan’s isolated Isle Royale.

Wolves were out of sight and out of mind, and the only predators to be found were chasing Porky Pig on the morning cartoons. However, in the 1960s and ’70s, wolves were rediscovered, and championed by the growing environmental movement, which showered attention on them as an iconic image of the wilderness.

Although wolves had been afforded very few measures of protection from state and local governments, it was the federal Endangered Species Act of 1978 that brought about the most sweeping safeguards.

In the following decade, recovery and reintroduction programs resulted in the release of wolves in Yellowstone National Park and helped to establish breeding populations primarily in the western Great Lakes states of Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and the northern Rocky Mountain states of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, as well as eastern Oregon and Washington.

As wolf populations continue to recover, they have returned to major portions of their historic range, and their public image has also enjoyed a bit of a revival.

Currently, there are more than 5,000 gray wolves in the U.S., located primarily in the western Great Lakes states of Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, and in the northern Rocky Mountain states of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, as well as eastern Oregon and Washington.

In addition there are an estimated 7,000 wolves in Alaska and as many as 50,000 in Canada, as well as a large population of red wolves.

Dispersal is easy, as carnivores are known to roam widely. In recent times, a young male cougar wandered 1,500 miles from South Dakota through the Adirondacks and into suburban Connecticut, where he became roadkill. There was also a female wolf who journeyed from the greater Yellowstone area to the Grand Canyon.

In 2003, a 2-year-old male lynx stepped into a trap in British Columbia that was used to capture individuals for a Colorado lynx reintroduction. Wildlife biologists fastened a GPS collar around his neck and transported him to Colorado’s high country. Soon, he found a mate, and sired three litters of kittens. In 2006, something set him to roaming and he eventually traveled more than 2,000 miles to Banff National Park, in Alberta, Canada, where his life ended in trap. He set a world record for the greatest-known distance covered by one of his kind.

Such cases provide evidence that even in our fractured world, it remains possible for carnivores to roam widely, even in this day and age.

There has also been evidence of wolves in several northeast states in recent years that was confirmed through DNA analysis of specimens that were mistakenly taken by hunters who mistook them for a coyote. One of the specimens was harvested by a hunter in the southern Adirondacks, near the Town of Day.

Wildlife biologists recognize that wolves are an essential link in the ecosystem, where they function as an apex predator. However, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service still proposes to lift federal protection on all gray wolves except for a struggling population of a subspecies, the Mexican wolves, which are to be found in the southwest.

The agency argues the threat of extinction has been eliminated, as wolf populations have bounced back to levels beyond the stated recovery goals. However, critics and numerous biologists believe the agency’s move is premature, and they want more time for wolf populations to grow.

Biologists and ecologists fear the proposal to drop federal protection will result in more aggressive management tactics and hunting policies, which would likely diminish opportunities for recolonizing other parts of their historic range.

There also appears to be considerable confusion about how to safely deal with threatened, and threatening, wildlife in the United States.

Although most wildlife biologists recognize the crucial niche predators serve in the ecosystem, the general public, and hunters in particular, still appear to exhibit an innate fear and hatred for all predators.

The proposal to remove federal endangered species protections for gray wolves in the lower 48 states has also come under fire from a scientific peer review panel that unanimously agreed that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision does not reflect the best available science regarding wolves.

Currently, there are several organizations involved in studying the feasibility of restoring indigenous species such as wolves, cougars, lynx and bobcats to the forests of the northeast.