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How many wolves constitutes a healthy wolf population? Should we manage wolves by the numbers?

When a population of wolves is deemed as recovered, it is “delisted” from the federal endangered species list so wolf management authority can transferred to the state(s). With authority to manage its wolf population, legal and liberal wolf control and hunting programs often become the predominant management strategy and with a goal to maintain a minimum population number to avoid relisting under the federal Endangered Species Act.

While it is possible to limit wolf populations to a particular number via lethal control, this strategy neglects to consider the wolf’s ecological importance. 

You can’t manage wolves by the numbers.

To achieve a healthy population of wolves, it’s critical that management strategies support gray wolf recovery at viable or ecologically effective levels.

No one knew this better than Dr. Gordon Haber (Alaska), who called such numbers-based management “ecological nonsense.”

You can’t just count the numbers of wolves over a particular area and decide whether it’s a “healthy” population. That’s because the functional unit of wolves is the family. A wolf is only a wolf when it’s part of an intact, unexploited family group capable of astonishingly beautiful and complex cooperative behaviors and unique traditions.

Dr. Haber taught us that devastation to, and fragmentation of, tightly-knit wolf families does far more damage than just killing a few wolves; it destroys family groups and extinguishes distinct behaviors that take generations to form.

If a family group is left unexploited, that is, not “managed” to a minimum population count via indiscriminate hunting and trapping, it will develop extraordinary traditions for hunting, pup-rearing, and social behaviors that are finely tuned to the family’s precise environment. By allowing wolves to express their natural social behavior, wolves will benefit themselves as well as the wider ecosystem.

Consider the eastern wolves (aka Algonquin wolves) of Algonquin Provincial Park. Although these wolves had been protected in the park for the greater part of the last century, nearly sixty percent of the population’s total deaths was attributed to hunting in the surrounding townships. These wolves were killed primarily in winter when their main prey, white-tailed deer, roamed outside the park’s boundary in search of forage.

But in 2001, when hunting on the outskirts of the park was banned, an amazing transition began to unfold.

Protected from hunting, not only did the Algonquin wolf population hold steady, there was also a rapid transition to more stable, family-based packs. This shift in social structure allowed younger wolves to learn sophisticated hunting strategies from their elders and better equip the family to successful hunt larger prey.

With added protections, eastern wolves reclaimed their place as top-level keystone predators. They proved influential in shaping and maintaining the structure of their natural communities.

The conservation challenges we face today are big and complex. Given the reality of climate change, an unprecedented period of human-caused Sixth Mass extinction, and other enormous threats to our planet’s biodiversity—which in turn threaten our own survival as a species – why not chose to learn from past lessons to develop management strategies that leverage the natural services afforded by wolves to create resilient and healthier ecosystems for us all.