In centuries past, grey wolves were fairly common throughout the Pacific Northwest and North America and played a significant role in the ecosystems they lived in. But thanks to a systemic and deadly campaign in the early to mid-20th century, grey wolves all but vanished in the lower 48. It wasn’t until they were listed as endangered and protected by the Endangered Species Act in 1973 that grey wolves started to have a fighting chance again. While there are still many threats, including anti-wolf sentiments and legislation, the grey wolf population has started to rebound in the last few decades and research has proven just how invaluable these canines are to their ecosystems.
Habitat and Range
The historical range of the grey wolf covered two-thirds of the United States and parts of Canada, where they thrived in a diversity of habitats like tundra, woodlands, grasslands, and forests. But thanks to widespread anti-wolf sentiments, conflicts with humans, and government-sanctioned wolf extermination programs, the grey wolf population in the United States was almost completely wiped out by the mid-20th century. Only a small population survived in northeastern Minnesota and Michigan.
Decades of work since wolves were listed as endangered have resulted in a growing population of grey wolves in North America. Their numbers and range are nowhere near what they were pre-European Americans but many are still optimistic about the numerous reintroduction and conservation projects. One of the most amazing reintroduction grey wolf projects was in Yellowstone National Park, where wolves were reintroduced 70 years after the last known wolf pack had been killed. The presence of wolves has noticeably changed the landscape of Yellowstone for the better and the population has grown from the initial 41 introduced in 1995 to more than 500 today.
Behavior and Social Dynamics
The popular notion of alpha wolves within packs is actually based on a scientific misunderstanding and is drastically different from how wild wolves actually interact. The idea of alpha and beta wolves comes from decades-old research on wolves in captivity; one influential work was a 1947 study titled “Expressions Studies on Wolves” by Rudolph Schekel. Schekel spent the 1930s and 1940s studying wolves at Switzerland’s Basel Zoo, where up to ten wolves were kept in a 2,000-square-foot enclosure. The idea of alpha wolves was further popularized by a 1970 book titled “The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species” by Dr. L David Mech, who built on Schekel’s work and spent time studying wolves in the 1960s at Michigan’s Isle Royale National Park.
However, this research, and more like it, is based on wolves in captivity, wolves who had little to no familial relationship with one another and were kept in an unnaturally small area. Wolves in the wild behave significantly differently, as wolf packs are based more on family structures. Like many other species, wolves are incredibly social, intelligent animals and have been known to care for one another. Dr. Mech is one of the world’s most profiled wolf researchers and even helped found the International Wolf Center. While his initial work helped popularize the idea of alpha wolves, he has since gone on to try and correct that myth, including attempting to stop printing his 1970 book and publishing papers that dive deeper into wolf behavior in the wild.
Grey wolves live in packs that typically include four to nine individuals; however, some packs have been known to be between 2-15 wolves. These packs are often extended families, with a complex hierarchy and dynamic. Additionally, the space that captive wolves live in is very small compared to wolves in the wild who have a territory of 50-1,000 square miles. Wolves are able to communicate with each other through body language, facial expressions, scent marking, and sounds like barking, growling, and howling. While they may not howl at the moon, wolves will howl to solidify pack bonds or to warn other packs to stay away.
Subspecies of the Grey Wolf
The grey wolf, sometimes called the timber wolf, is one of three extant wolf species in the world, with the other two being the red wolf and the Ethiopian wolf. There are, of course, many subspecies of wolves, including grey wolf subspecies like the coastal wolves found in British Columbia, the Mexican Wolf found in the American Southwest, and the Islands Wolf of Southeast Alaska. Other subspecies of the grey wolf include the Great Plains Wolves, Arctic Wolves, and Eastern Timber Wolves.
Threats and Legal Status
For centuries, humans and wolves have had a complicated relationship that only got tenser as European Americans began settling in the Pacific Northwest. As European-style agricultural practices became more common and urban areas started to grow, conflicts between humans and wolves grew. By the 1930s, wolves were all but wiped out in Washington and it took more than seven decades for a breeding pair to be documented within the state again. In the years since, the wolf population has continued to grow because of the hard work done by researchers, governmental agencies, the state’s Wolf Advisory Group, and organizations like Conservation Northwest.
While plenty of work has been done to help the grey wolf in the Pacific Northwest, there are still many threats to the still-growing population and many say that grey wolves have not fully recovered. Despite these concerns, the federal government officially delisted the grey wolf from the Endangered Species Act in 2021; during that same year, Idaho passed a controversial bill that would effectively kill the majority of the state’s wolves and undo decades of conservation work. And because wildlife like wolves do not observe boundaries and borders as humans do, Idaho’s SB1211 impacts more than just those within the state.
The Pacific Northwest has actually been home to several famous wolves. In 2003, a wolf won the hearts of an entire neighborhood in Juneau, Alaska. Romeo, as he’d come to be known, was a lone Alexander Archipelago wolf who called the trails and lake of Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area home. Nick Jans wrote about his experiences with Romeo in the book A Wolf Called Romeo, as he lived by the lake that the wolf would often frequent and his dogs had more than one playful interaction with him. Romeo hasn’t been the only lone wolf to gain the love of many humans, as Takaya was a lone sea wolf who lived on and around Vancouver Island in British Columbia. Another famous wolf was Journey, formerly known as OR-7. This wolf made history in late 2011 when he became the first confirmed wild wolf west of the Oregon Cascades since 1947. Unfortunately, these wolves had become beloved by many but the combination of their habituation with humans and the arrogance of a few resulted in both Romeo and Takaya being shot by hunters. Journey’s exact fate is unknown but it’s speculated that he likely passed in 2020 after not being seen for months.
Grey wolves are amazing wild animals with their own complex and amazing lives. Thanks to decades of work, the grey wolf population is starting to rebound after nearly being hunted to extinction in the United States. While the perception of these canines has changed slightly over the last century, there is still a lot more work to be done so humans and grey wolves can safely and harmoniously co-exist. If you are interested in supporting grey wolf conservation, consider donating to Conservation Northwest, Northwest Trek, or Oregon Wild.