As members of Congress and Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell sit in Washington pondering whether to consider gray wolves recovered enough in the lower 48 to remove them from the Endangered Species List, I sit in Gardiner, Montana, just outside the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park, wondering what "recovered" means.
During the last three winters I lived and volunteered in the Lamar Valley, Yellowstone's wolf country. I've watched lots of wolves, talked with lots of experts, heard lots of opinions, even written a book about wolves. The recovery of America's wolf population matters to me.
About 5,500 wolves survive in the lower 48 now. Is that a lot of wolves - a recovered population? To answer that question, I went looking for historical records of gray wolf populations. They were easy to find.
A map in "Yellowstone Resources and Issues Handbook" shows that gray wolves once roamed all but eight of the lower 48 states. Today's range is just the opposite: gray wolves are in only eight states: Oregon, Washington, Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana. That doesn't look like the range of a recovered national population to me.
If wolves haven't recovered their range, have they recovered their numbers? In an article in Yellowstone Science magazine, historians Lee Whittlesey and Paul Schullery report the results of analyzing many historical records. They found that naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton estimated about two million wolves roamed North America and northern Mexico before the arrival of Europeans. They found a record of scientists using DNA testing to estimate that there were 380,000 wolves in the western United States and Mexico prior to their eradication in the early 1900s. Today only 1,700 wolves survive in the American West. Surely, that's not "recovered."
The picture isn't much prettier in Yellowstone. Whittlesey and Schullery looked at the historical wolf population in and around the park and determined that wolves were once widespread and abundant. Today, about 100 wolves are protected in Yellowstone - and liable to be shot when they step paw outside the park.
The historians also found records that there were once several hundred thousand wolves in the region that would become Montana. Today, only about 600 wolves manage to avoid Montana's abundant traps and guns. Recovered?
Whittlesey and Schullery quote those DNA scientists as recommending an even more ambitious restoration effort in the West, one that "... would restore wolves to past population sizes and enable them to significantly influence the dynamics of the Rocky Mountain ecosystem."
Many scientists have shown that wolves benefit the ecosystems where they roam. Given continued protection they will improve even more ecosystems. I think that more restoration - more protection - sounds like a good goal. Much better than delisting and the inevitable slaughter of wolves that will follow, I'm just a writer and wolf advocate with a laptop and a low-speed Internet connection, but I didn't find anything that made a case for objectively calling the gray wolf recovered in the lower 48. I hope that members of Congress and Secretary Jewell find the same - if they are searching for objective data instead of just trying to rationalize a decision foisted on them by people who don't want wolves anywhere in America.
(Top photo of 100-pound male wolf from Oregon's Mt. Emily pack, a descendent of wolves released into Idaho in 1995.)