One Key to National Wolf Recovery: Protecting "Dispersers"

Credit: Wolf sketch: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Diane Boyd

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to remove Endangered Species Act protections from gray wolves across the country (except for Mexican wolves in the Southwest). If finalized, it would mean that wolves in the western Great Lakes region would be federally “delisted,” along with wolves that are just gaining a toehold in western Washington, western Oregon, and northern California.

It would also mean the end of federal protections for another, often forgotten class of wolves—lone, long-distance “dispersers.” Dispersing wolves are typically younger animals (males and females) who leave their packs and travel dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of miles throughout the country in search of new territories or mates.

About ten percent of wolves disperse each year. This evolved behavior is critically important to the future of wolf recovery in the Lower 48, in part because dispersing wolves are able to travel to and recolonize unoccupied habitat. While much of wolves’ historical range in the contiguous U.S. has disappeared due to human development, large areas of suitable habitat still remain in places like the Pacific Northwest, Southern Rockies, and Northeast, where wolves could one day live and thrive again. Dispersers may be the species’ best bet for one day reaching and resettling places like California’s Sierra Nevada, Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, or New York’s Adirondacks.

And they’re trying. In the last twenty years, dispersing wolves have been documented in every western state other than Oklahoma or Texas—as well as several midwestern and northeastern states. In fact, all told, in recent years wolves have been verified in more states (26) than not in the U.S.

Map showing the Service’s estimated historical (lighter gray) and current (darker gray) range of gray wolves in the Lower 48. We (NRDC) have added wolf icons in those states where long-distance dispersing wolves have also been documented in recent years.
Credit: Map: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Wolf icon:

Usually traveling alone, dispersers manage to cross highways, find food and shelter in unfamiliar terrain, and navigate a labyrinth of inhospitable urban and rural landscapes—all while moving quietly and mostly unnoticed. But dispersal is a dangerous business. Heartbreakingly, after somehow surviving an endless minefield of perils for weeks or even months on end, many of these intrepid travelers are suddenly, mistakenly shot by coyote hunters, caught in traps, hit by vehicles, and even poisoned.

Maintaining Endangered Species Act protections would at least continue to shield these wolves from being intentionally killed by humans. But the Service’s proposal refuses to do so, writing them off as unimportant and unnecessary to the agency’s far more limited vision of a wolf “recovery” confined to just a few corners of the country.

Some of the scientific experts who reviewed the Service’s proposal criticized its cursory analysis of dispersers and its failure to acknowledge that, due to the documented presence of these individuals throughout much of the country, significant portions of wolves’ “historical” range should actually be considered “current" range—and protected accordingly. For example, reviewer Dr. Carlos Carroll observed:

"For those regions (Colorado/Utah, the northeastern US) where breeding pairs or packs are not yet documented, but multiple exploratory dispersals have been recorded, the ESA’s mandate for “institutionalized caution” towards preventing extinction would suggest in-depth consideration and potentially inclusion within the definition of range."

The Service should heed these concerns—expressed by some of the most prominent wolf experts in the country.

Even with federal safeguards in place, dispersing wolves face a daunting challenge. Without them, they stand little chance of surviving the gauntlet that separates them from the last remaining areas of unoccupied habitat that for decades have awaited their return. Only if federal protections are kept in place do wolves have a fighting chance of full recovery.

The Service has extended the deadline to comment on its proposal until July 15. Please tell the agency to withdraw its proposal, maintain Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves in the Lower 48, and give them the chance they deserve to return to all of the wild places they once roamed—and still could.