Conservation efforts have been proven to reverse the negative trends that have led to catastrophic decreases in populations of native animal species in North America and elsewhere around the world. It’s always good news when we see animals returning to regions where they once roamed in great numbers, but we have a long way to go before we can say that biodiversity is secure in North America and on other continents. Gray wolves are one example of a species that is on the rebound, but still very much threatened.
Over the past few centuries, since the arrival of European settlers, the populations of native species have plummeted for a variety of reasons. For one, the conversion of forests and grasslands into agricultural land has severely limited the natural habitat available for wild animals.
Hunting, Highways, and Habitat Loss
Hunting has further depleted native species. Where passenger pigeons once blackened the skies when flocks were in flight, the last of that species died in captivity in 1914. And by 1889, the wild American bison had been reduced from massive herds who roamed the open plains to just 85 roaming freely and 750 in protected federal lands and national parks.
These two species were wiped out for sport, but the gray wolf was targeted as a predator species that would kill other animals, which people wanted to hunt themselves, such as elk and caribou. Ranchers also saw them as a threat to domesticated herds of cattle and sheep in the West.
Other changes to the landscape have affected wild animals like wolves. The massive highways that now intersect the continent present dangerous barriers for migrating wildlife, leading to high death rates when animals try to cross them.
For all of these reasons, the current population of gray wolves in the United States is between 16,000 and 18,000, with about two-thirds of them in Alaska. In 1995, gray wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone, and now 104 wolves roam the park in 11 packs. Now they are also back in Colorado, reports Trevor Nace this month in Forbes. For the first time since the 1930s, a pack of wolves was spotted.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) confirmed that they saw the pack of six roaming around Moffat County in northwest Colorado. CPW officials first heard howling and then saw wolf tracks before finally seeing the pack in person. Colorado Governor Jared Polis issued a statement saying,
“I am honored to welcome our canine friends back to Colorado after their long absence.”
It’s not time to celebrate yet, though. While currently gray wolves are on the Endangered Species List, with a $100,000 fine and a year in prison for killing a wolf, political appointees at the U.S. Department of the Interior want to remove the protected status of gray wolves.
Gray wolves are an important part of the ecosystem. As apex predators, they control the population numbers of species, such as deer, which helps to protects natural ecosystems. For instance, before the wolves returned to Yellowstone, deer were over-grazing the vegetation. Almost as soon as the wolves arrived, deer started avoiding places where they were most at risk from the wolves, and the vegetation immediately started to be replenished.
This provided an opportunity for other native species to move in. Even the rivers changed as the regenerating forests stabilized their banks and slowed erosion. Restoring the natural diversity of species can have massive benefits on not just the plant and animal life, but geographic features as well.
The popular video tells the story of how vital wolves are to supporting life in their natural ecosystems:
The return of the gray wolf to Colorado gives rise to optimism that with conservation, biodiversity and natural ecosystems can be restored, but it will take continued action by citizens, conservation groups, and government leaders to ensure this progress will not be reversed.