Do you ever hear the howl of the wolf? As prominent as these mammals are in fairy tales and fables, wolves were among the first species listed as endangered in the U.S. In 1966, the Endangered Species Preservation Act, a precursor to 1973’s Endangered Species Act, listed red wolves and timber wolves (now known as gray wolves), as endangered species to be federally protected. Today, gray and red wolves are listed as endangered in the majority of the continental U.S. (To see if wolves are endangered in your area, check the Endangered Species Act list).
Wolves are often portrayed as scary predators. And although the predator notion is true, the truth is, wolves are probably more afraid of you than you are of them. Like every animal, they have an important role to play keeping an ecosystem in check.
Why are wolves important to the environment?
At one point, you could find wolves across North America. But their population greatly dwindled because of illegal hunting. A smaller wolf population is not only harmful to the species itself, but for the overall environment.
Without wolves, an entire ecosystem could become unbalanced. This is because wolves are a keystone species and apex carnivores. They live at the top of the food chain with very few natural predators. A healthy wolf population keeps species down the food chain at sustainable levels. Red wolves, for example, maintain a balanced population of prey, such as small rodents, raccoons, white-tailed deer and feral hogs.
Wolves also help maintain healthy plant populations. When Yellowstone National Park was established, predators were eliminated, including wolves. This led to overgrazing of vegetation by other species because the ecosystem wasn’t in balance. Wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995, and since then, woody browse species, such as willow and aspen trees, have made a comeback in some areas.
Common threats to wolves
As we’ve learned, it’s pertinent to keep wolf populations healthy. One way to do so is to identify and mitigate threats to their survival. Threats to wolves include illegal poaching and trapping as well as habitat loss.
Red wolves in North Carolina are often mistaken for coyotes. To help avoid this costly mistake, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) began outfitting red wolves with bright orange collars. This lets hunters know these animals are endangered and should not be hunted.
Did you know wolf conservation has a Wild Kingdom connection? Host Marlin Perkins founded the Endangered Wolf Center in Missouri in 1971. When the center was founded, wolf populations were dwindling, and their ecosystem suffered. But thanks to careful conservation and breeding programs, today, the population is slowly regaining balance in the wild.
Take the Mexican wolf population, a subspecies of the gray wolf. In the 1970s, only seven Mexican wolves lived in the wild. Today, that number is over 240. This is because of the conservation efforts from the center. In fact, every Mexican wolf in the wild today can trace its roots back to the Endangered Wolf Center. The reintroduction program started in 1998 when 11 wolves were placed in the wild.
Even fewer red wolves live in the wild. Historically, they lived across the southeastern U.S., but today can only be found in North Carolina. The red wolf is the most endangered wolf in the world. Its conservation story is historic — it was the first large carnivore ever reintroduced to the wild.
Keep reading to learn more about wolf conservation efforts in the U.S. — soon to be seen on Protecting the Wild!
How you can help wolves
You may not work for a conservation organization, but that doesn’t mean you can’t help ensure the regrowth of wild wolf populations. Here are some ways you can help these canids:
- Educate yourself about the history of wolves and their continued threats.
- Support organizations, such as the Endangered Wolf Center, Red Wolf Recovery Program and the Wildlife Science Center by following their social media, reading updates and making a donation.
- Coexist with wolves in your area. If you see a wolf, don’t approach it. Instead, use binoculars to safely catch a glimpse of this incredible animal.
- Debunk myths about wolves. Use the list below to get started.
Common wolf misconceptions
- They’re very dangerous to humans. Little Red Riding Hood had it wrong — wolves aren’t bad. They’re notoriously shy and will avoid you. However, keep in mind they’re still wild animals and, like all wild animals, are better viewed from a distance.
- Wolves howl at the moon. They do howl, but it’s used as a communication method among their pack and to warn other packs.
- Only big dogs evolved from wolves. Nope! Every dog — from a husky to a poodle — came from wolves. That’s right, even the smallest lap dog has wolf ancestors!
Fun facts about wolves
- They’re found around the world, with packs in North America, Europe and Asia. They can live in various habitats, including forests, woodlands, deserts and the tundra.
- Their coat can range in color, including brown, black, gray and white.
- Adults can eat 20 pounds of meat in one meal.
- Pack sizes vary from two to 15.
- Pups are born in a den but don’t stay in one place for long. Mothers move dens every few months while the pups are young.
Wolf episode coming soon to Protecting the Wild
Get a glimpse into the world of wolves on an upcoming episode of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom Protecting the Wild. Co-Hosts Peter Gros and Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant travel to North Carolina, Missouri and Minnesota to see recovery efforts and view wolves in the wild.
In North Carolina, Peter traveled to Alligator River Wildlife Refuge with the Red Wolf Recovery Program and USFWS. It was an eventful day of filming with Peter even catching a glimpse of a wild red wolf!
Peter then went to the Endangered Wolf Center in Missouri, a core component of the Mexican wolf’s survival. The center is home to several wolf species, as well as foxes and other canids from around the world. Through educational programming, research and reintroduction, the center is saving these important species.
Up north in Minnesota, Dr. Rae learned about gray wolves at the Wildlife Science Center. This center is part of the Species Survival Plan for both the red wolf and the Mexican gray wolf. This captive breeding program is approved by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums to rebuild the wolf population. Dr. Rae saw firsthand how wolves are very timid around humans and learned about the differences between dogs and wolves.
Catch this episode of Protecting the Wild on NBC’s “The More You Know” programming block in 2024. See clips and get links to full episodes.
Learn more about the Endangered Species Act and how it has helped protect animals for 50 years.