Wolf populations in North America have paid a high price for losing its natural habitats. Environments where wolves live naturally were reduced by factors, such as land development, hunting for sport and predator control programs. By 1980, only 17 red wolves remained. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service captured these for breeding in an artificial wolf habitat and declared them extinct in the wild.
Endangered Wolf Habitats
Although wolves have established safe habitats in areas like Yellowstone and Banff; in the states of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, gray wolves were removed from the endangered species list on April 11, 2011. This means between 300 and 450 of the approximately 1,650 wolves in this region can be hunted in season with permits. Removal from the endangered species list is attributed to pressure from ranchers, who claim large livestock losses; hunters, who want more elk or deer available for their sport and anti-wolf groups, according to pro-wolf groups. This isn't the only problem facing wolves in the U.S. Young adults in the Yellowstone area must leave the safety of their packs and travel to seek out their own territories. Contact with humans at ranches and in urban areas will prove fatal for some of these wolves.
Ideal Wolf Habitats
Wolves are attracted to habitats with high numbers of elk, sufficient forest cover and low sheep or human populations. The fact that there's few regions left with all these features hampers conservationists from the work of successfully reintroducing wolf populations. Long-term goals of conversationalists are to establish packs who can communicate to maintain a healthy gene pool. Corridors for travel must stay open between protected areas to allow this to occur by exchanges of adult wolves. Montana and Idaho wolf habitats in the Rocky Mountains cover a wider area and have better potential for exchanges than the Yellowstone Park area.
After wolves were removed from their natural habitats in the 19th and early on in the 20th century, these ecosystems became unbalanced by the absence of a major predator in the food chain. Some species, like elk, profited from the removal of its biggest enemy. Other populations, such as wild turkeys, declined due to over-populations of smaller predators, such as coyotes. Yellowstone Park scientists found there were unexpectedly wide-ranging changes brought about by the reintroduction of wolves. Elk populations multiplied in the absence of wolves, resulting in the over-grazing of vulnerable meadows and wetlands. After wolves returned, willow and aspen trees grew more abundantly and taller. These extra trees gave shelter and shade for fish, birds and beavers. Red foxes were sighted more frequently and in some areas, coyote populations fell by 50 percent.
The Future of Wolf Habitats
Public opinion concerning wolves has swung in their favor since the 1970s. At wolf habitats in Yellowstone National Park, tourists enjoy catching glimpses of wolves and hearing their calls. Economic reasoning points out that local tourism industries benefit financially from proximity to packs of wolves. The collective feelings of guilt over thousands of wolves that were killed as undesirable predators are lessening since the reintroduction. Ecological reasoning explains wolves are part of an ecosystem which is interdependent and must be preserved for future generations.