Wolves at Our Door?
No other North American mammal inspires such a wide range of human emotions as the gray wolf. Feared and admired, cursed and revered, wolves are the stuff of legends and a symbol of America’s vanishing wilderness. Their reputation is larger than life; their role in the restoration of America’s wildlife heritage is bigger still. The passionate positive and negative responses that wolves inspire in people have left the issue of their recovery in suitable habitat throughout their historic range both contentious and undecided, but also full of promise.
The howl of the wolf has been silent in the Northeast for over a hundred years. Over three centuries, as the great eastern forest was turned into farmland, wolves were shot, poisoned, trapped, and burned. By the mid-1800s, wolves were eliminated in northern Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. By 1900, they were gone from the Adirondacks.
Today, scientists recognize the ecological importance of the wolf. As Aldo Leopold, Adolph Murie, and others argued eloquently decades ago, apex predators, especially wolves, are essential for resilient, healthy ecosystems. And with the support of the American public and the safety net of the Endangered Species Act, the wolf was able to return to portions of its native range in the Lower Forty-Eight.
Some wolves came back on their own. Minnesota wolves reclaimed adjacent states in the western Great Lakes region. Some wolves got help. In one of those rare moments when stars align in the political sky, the federal government gave the green light to return wolves to the northern Rockies. Here in the Northeast, there are no plans for a reintroduction. Wolves, however, are wanderers, and have demonstrated that they are capable of epic treks. In recent years, there have been several reports of wolves from Canada crossing the frozen St. Lawrence Seaway into Maine, of wolves traveling south from Yellowstone into Utah and Colorado, and of one wolf, OR-7, becoming the first wild wolf to enter California in over eighty years.
But just as wolves are beginning to reclaim territory, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is pushing a plan to remove federal protections from nearly all gray wolves in the contiguous United States—a move that, if implemented, will threaten the fragile populations still trying to make a comeback on the American landscape.
In March, the Northeast Wolf Coalition submitted comments opposing this proposal. According to a peer-reviewed report by an independent panel of scientists produced by the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, the service’s move to strip federal protection nationwide is flawed. The peer-review committee reported that “there was unanimity among the panel that the [delisting] rule does not currently represent the ‘best available science.’”
Nevertheless, the delisting seems imminent.
Studies have shown that the Northeast has enough prey and habitat to support wolf recovery, and public surveys demonstrate support as well. If wolves do return to the region, however, their long-term survival will depend on their official status at the state level.
Presently, none of the five states (Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, and New York) affords wolves any protection beyond a prohibition on hunting or trapping. None of the states has a management plan to address the potential return of wolves. None promotes wolf recovery, and none has a plan to protect wolves from being killed, whether accidentally or intentionally. Growing evidence suggests wolves are attempting to naturally recolonize the region. But because all five states sanction policies that encourage the unregulated killing of wild canids (i.e., coyotes), this evidence is in the form of dead wolves.
The State & Tribal Wildlife Grants Program is federally appropriated monies dedicated to the prevention of endangered species listings. The program provides funding to state fish and wildlife agencies in every state, territory and the District of Columbia and is matched with state and private funds. State and Tribal Wildlife Grants have funded the development, revision and implementation of State Wildlife Action Plans. Updating these plans will enable state wildlife agencies to integrate the latest information about wolves and leverage more state wildlife grant funding to promote their return. New York and other states will have a chance to improve the chances for the wolf’s recovery when they update their wildlife-conservation plans by 2015.
The value of conserving endangered species and preserving biodiversity is an axiom of the twenty-first century. The ecological importance of a top predator such as the gray wolf is undeniable. The return of the wolf will reflect a more fully functional and wild ecosystem in Northeast, with wolves fulfilling a dynamic and evolving ecological function in the changing environments that comprise the region. We have known for years that wolves disproportionately affect their environment relative to their abundance. As top-level predators, they are influential in shaping and maintaining the structure of their natural communities. Their presence and activities benefit numerous other species, helping determine the numbers and kinds of mammals, birds and plants in an area. For example, bears, weasels, ravens and eagles often scavenge on deer carcasses left by wolves. Wolves alter the feeding behavior of deer, which limits over-browsing and prevents the destruction of plants and habitats vital to many species of birds. When wolves recolonize areas, they induce vegetative changes allowing for the return of beaver and migrating birds previously driven out of denuded habitats. Predation by wolves also removes animals that are weaker genetically or harbor sicknesses.
The effects of predators on ecosystems do not operate in isolation but interact in complex ways with other factors, such as the productivity of ecosystems and the diversity of species within them. To enable wildlife managers to best harness the ecosystem services that wolves and other predators provide, there is a need for better knowledge of the processes that govern the strength of their interactions with other species and the complexities of their effects. The Coalition recommends (1) the wolf – C. lupus, C. lycaon, and/or their hybrids – be considered a species of highest priority; that is, it is extremely vulnerable and rare with immediate limits to its survivability based on known problems and known impacts to the population in the region; (2) the states and the federal government work cooperatively to develop and implement a trans-boundary Northeastern Wolf Recovery Plan that affords the protection needed to enhance natural recolonization of wolves to the Northeast; (3) the states work cooperatively to implement comprehensive public education and outreach programs to promote knowledge of the species and the regulations and laws as they relate to the protection of wolves across the Northeast.
The Northeast has unique opportunities and challenges. Without a plan for its recovery, the wolf will continue to be challenged by factors that will preclude its natural return to the region. Many ecologists fear we may not realize the full ecological impacts of the absence of wolves for generations to come. We thus have an obligation to the environment, to the wolf and to future generations to restore the wolf to its rightful place niche on the landscape, in our hearts and in our culture.
Maggie Howell is the executive director of the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, NY, and coordinator of the Northeast Wolf Coalition. Diane Bentivegna serves on the WCC’s Advisory Board and is a member of the Northeast Wolf Coalition.