Why gray wolves still need, and deserve, our protection

Protections for the gray wolf are being dismantled in the U.S. Here’s why that’s a bad idea for the wolves and for the environment.


Colfelly | Pixabay.com

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America let the gray wolf all but vanish from our Lower 48 states once before. Could it happen again? And why does it matter?

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, hunting and so-called predator control programs eliminated gray wolves from their native range in the contiguous United States, except for a small sliver, in the northeast corner of Minnesota.

The return of the wolf

Wolves came back in the U.S. much later in the 20th century, due primarily to four factors:

  • The 1973 passage of the Endangered Species Act.
  • The 1978 decision to list the gray wolf as endangered in the Lower 48 states.
  • Some wolves that have survived in Canada crossed into the northern United States.
  • Wildlife officials captured and reintroduced wolves in such places as Yellowstone National Park.

A qualified success

These efforts resulted in gray wolves repopulating such states as Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.

This was obviously good news for the wolves. But it was good news for the environment.

The reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone, for example, had a series of cascading positive effects on the park’s ecosystem.

  • The wolf’s return changed the behavior of the park’s deer (which are, of course, prey for the wolf), allowing aspen, willow and cottonwood trees (which are food for deer) to grow.
  • Reforesting attracted beavers (which gnawed on the suddenly abundant trees).
  • The beavers built dams, which provided new habitat for otters and ducks and fish and other critters.
  • And on and on and on. As a “keystone” species, the wolf’s presence allowed the ecosystem to flourish in a way it hadn’t, and couldn’t, during the wolf‘s absence.

A fraction of their former range

Still, these successes produced only a few thousand wolves, occupying only 10% of the gray wolf’s original range.
That was enough, however, for the Trump administration. In 2020, administration officials took the gray wolf off of the endangered species list — opening the door to the killing of hundreds of gray wolves. In Wisconsin alone, a wolf hunt in February 2021 wiped out 216 gray wolves in just 60 hours, blowing well past the kill quota of 119.

Thankfully, a court reinstated endangered wolf protections last year for all areas of the country except the northern Rockies. Hundreds of wolves are still being hunted down there, with this past winter proving especially deadly. More than 250 wolves were killed in Montana this winter alone.

Now, U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert (Colo.) has introduced a bill in Congress that could undo wolves’ endangered species protections and unleash wolf hunting and trapping in every state in the United States once again. 

How the Boebert bill threatens wolves

Rep. Boebert’s bill would put gray wolves back in the crosshairs.

The bill aims to repeal gray wolf Endangered Species Act protections, which would leave wolves vulnerable across the United States. If left unprotected, the gray wolf packs that are still struggling to rebound could be dodging bullets and deadly traps. Taking their protections away would be a devastating blow to wolf packs around the country.

Rep. Boebert’s bill would also block future efforts to protect wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, where they’re currently being hunted.

It’s the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s job to protect endangered species and determine the best plans for their recovery. Congress shouldn’t be using politics to reduce Endangered Species Act protections for recovering species. That should be left to the scientists who study gray wolf populations and how wolves interact with the ecosystems around them.

Gray wolves have a target on their backs and this latest attack is moving quickly. We need to protect endangered wolves from this disastrous bill. You can help prevent a killing frenzy by joining our call to protect wolves.

Tell your U.S. House representative: Don’t erase gray wolf protections.


Steve Blackledge

Senior Director, Conservation America Campaign, Environment America

Steve directs Environment America’s efforts to protect our public lands and waters and the species that depend on them. He led our successful campaign to win full and permanent funding for our nation’s best conservation and recreation program, the Land and Water Conservation Fund. He previously oversaw U.S. PIRG’s public health campaigns. Steve lives in Sacramento, California, with his family, where he enjoys biking and exploring Northern California.