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.