Comeback critter: Gray wolf

Caring people pass laws to help these canines expand their territory.

A gray wolf pads along a forest edge and cautiously sniffs the ground. His movements trigger a trail camera, which snaps a photo of the animal as he crosses the invisible state line that divides Oregon and California. The lone wolf, nicknamed Journey, is on a quest to find a mate. Journey’s, well, journey doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it is: He's perhaps the first wolf to enter California in nearly a hundred years. 

Hunted wolves

Some two million gray wolves once roamed throughout North America. But in the early 1800s, settlers moving westward across what’s now the United States cleared areas of land for ranching and farming. That meant the wolves didn’t have as much natural prey like bison and elk, so they ate livestock instead. 

Over the next century, people got rid of the wolves using guns, poison, and traps. By the 1970s, only a few hundred remained in the lower 48 states of the United States, in parts of northern Minnesota and on an island in Lake Superior, one of the Great Lakes.

Experts knew that the animals were in danger of going extinct in the lower 48 states. (Gray wolves in Alaska were never endangered.) "But wolves belong here too," says Carter Niemeyer, a former wolf manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Back on track

The U.S. government listed the gray wolf under the Endangered Species Act in 1974, which made it illegal to kill or harm the country’s wolves. 

"At this time, people wanted to see wolves expand their territory and return to western parts of the United States," biologist Doug Smith says. Gray wolves had been living successfully in Canada for centuries. So in the early 1990s, U.S. and Canadian scientists captured 76 Canadian wolves and released them in parts of Yellowstone National Park in Montana and Wyoming, plus parts of Idaho. "The wolves thrived in their new homes," Smith says. The hope was that the wolves would explore beyond the park’s borders and make their homes in other states, too. 

In just 40 years, the gray wolf population grew to about 7,500 in the lower 48 states—plus some 10,000 wolves in Alaska. "We should be really proud that we brought back a species that could’ve been wiped off the map," Smith says. 

Pup progress

Today, wolves like Journey continue to return to their former range—and help those ecosystems at the same time. "Wolves influence the number of big animals such as elk. You need that because too many hungry elk can eat too many plants," Niemeyer says. "Other animals, like foxes and bearded vultures, also feed off of what wolves kill." Although conservationists and ranchers still debate what a healthy wolf population means for farms and cities, these wolves aren’t going anywhere.   

A few years ago in California, Journey’s lonely arrooo was answered by a small, black wolf: his mate. Together the pair raised at least 16 pups, some of which have gone on to start their own packs—giving conservationists something to howl about.