Changing Planet

Geography in the News: Wolf Controversies

By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Geography in the NewsTM

Who’s Crying, “Wolf?”

Wolves remain one of the American West’s most controversial species. Hardly a week goes by without a newspaper article describing conflicting issues about wolves across the West. Any discussion of the management of wolf populations and geographic ranges brings criticism from all sides of the issue.

When the wolf was “delisted,” or taken off the Endangered Species Act (ESA) list in 2009, a battle began. The fight is between a coalition of livestock and hunting groups and an alliance of environmental and animal rights groups. The issue is over how to manage the West’s healthy wolf populations and whether states should allow wolves to be hunted once more.

The grey wolf, Canis lupus, is the largest member of the dog family. Wolves likely originated during the Late Pleistocene about 300,000 years ago. While once found in any ecosystem on every continent in the Northern Hemisphere, wolves were hunted to near extinction by the early 20th century.

When European settlers came to North America in the 1500s and 1600s, wolves were living both in the forested areas and on the plains. Early settlers, fueled by a traditional European hatred of the wolf, began eradicating the animal using firearms, traps and poison. Authorities offered bounties to anyone bringing in wolf hides or other parts of dead wolves.

An all-out war against the wolf began when people began to settle the Great Plains in the 1800s. The enormous herds of bison that served as food for the wolves helped keep the pack numbers high in the region. When hunters decimated the bison populations in the mid-1800s, however, the wolves turned to domestic sheep and cattle as prey, bringing greater pressure on their numbers.

During the last half of the 19th century in the western United States, as many as two million wolves were killed. The U.S. government supported complete annihilation of the animal and passed a law in 1919 that called for eradication of wolves on federal lands.

By the time the law was repealed in 1942, another 25,000 wolves had been killed by the government plan. The wolf remained nearly extinct in the American West until the species gained protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1974.

When, in the 1980s, a small number of wolves migrated from Canada into Glacier National Park in Montana, talk of reintroducing the animal to the region began. During this time, ecological research was showing that wolves and other predators play critical roles in maintaining the ecosystems to which they belong.

After several years of study, public comment and controversy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided in the early 1990s to reintroduce wolves to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho. Over the last 20 years, wolf populations have grown and packs have flourished, spreading out from Yellowstone and onto adjacent range land.

Today, ranchers in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming find that news disturbing and fear loss of livestock to wolves. Big game hunters are also lobbying for less wolf protection, fearing elk and deer predation by wolves. Many feel that states should allow wolves to be hunted just as bear and mountain lion hunting is allowed. On the other side, environmental and animal rights groups argue on behalf of the wolf, seeing its presence as necessary for the ecosystem and worrying that too many wolves will be killed.

gitn_1038_NGS Wolf
Source: Geography in the NewsTM

Research in three states of the Rocky Mountain West shows that wolf populations have completely recovered and no longer need ESA protection. According to an article by Ed Bangs of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Oct 2009), wolves in the modern world require management to minimize conflicts.

This management may include public hunting of wolves or not, but Bangs stresses that it will involve killing wolves to keep their numbers in check. If hunters and ranchers are not allowed to hunt wolves, then controlled kills will be necessary to maintain healthy wolf numbers and control their conflicts with domestic livestock. The management goal is to find the most efficient, least expensive and most socially acceptable methods of dealing with wolves, while also further enhancing wolf conservation.

And that is Geography in the NewsTM .

Sources: GITN 1038 Crying “Wolf”, Apr. 23, 2010; Bangs, Ed, “Wolves, Elk, Science and Human Values,” Bugle, Sept/Oct 2009, pgs. 79-82;; and

Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor.

Geography in the NewsTM is solely owned and operated by Neal Lineback for the purpose of providing geographic education to readers worldwide.

Neal Lineback has written weekly Geography in the News (GITN) articles for more than 25 years (1,200 published articles) while he was Chair of Geography and Planning at Appalachian State University and since. In 2007, he brought his daughter Mandy Gritzner in as a co-author. She is also a geographer with a graduate degree from Montana State University. GITN has won national recognition and numerous awards from the Association of American Geographers, the National Council for Geographic Education and Travelocity, among others..
  • Richard. Stamps

    Ed Bangs of Fish and Game only said there was a recovered number that should warrant a delisting. Thi was under pressure from western states,donations to politicians, mostly Repubs. who worried that to many wolves meant dead livestock. Cattlemen,hunters,rt.wing repubs.have proven to be ignorant of factual research and proud of it. No where in his delisting did he mention that states could slaughter them at will. Idaho,Montana,Wy.,Wisc.etc. Hundreds of wolves have been eradicated already. If a new study by Fish and Game were effected now their numbers would be to low to delist in 2014.

  • Maria Arefieva

    Wish your article covered more of the non-lethal control, rather than making a point how killing of wolves is ‘necessary’ to keep their number in check. Such a nonsense. It was proven again and again that (a) animal maintain their numbers to balance with available eco-system and (b) whenever non-lethal methods are used to manage the predator-ranching conflicts they are found to be more effective and more economical.

    The hunting communities only advocate hunts because this is what they have been doing for generations and this is what they love to do – kill animals. And I’m not talking about killing to put food not he table. No, killing as a ‘sport’, which is sick and barbaric. How many times it came up that hunters trap wolves and then club them to death or take shots at them for fun, instead of putting poor animal out of its misery as soon as possible. Even Gov workers have been caught doing that, but actually taking photos of torturing the animals and proudly posting it on FB.

    And let’s not forget denning – burying wolf pups alive in their dens; shooting a wolf in a gut in leaving him/her to die long painful death; staking wolf pups to the ground to bait the pack rushing over to protect the little ones; and sending dogs to hunt wolves or tear poor trapped animals to pieces.

    That is why the issue is controversial. Because this so called ‘wolf management’ is cruel and sadistic. If any of those ‘management practices’ were applied to a dog – it’d be considered an extreme case of animal cruelty. But, somehow applied to a wolf, or to be fair a bear or coyote or a mountain lion, it is considered ‘wildlife management’.

    And don’t forget those cruel and sadistic ‘management’ practices are paid for with our tax money and the Wildlife Services (wildlife extermination agency) has been extremely evasive and the attempts to audit their budget an methods have not been successful when attempted by the Congress.

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