Northeast Wolf Background and Recovery
Wolves once roamed throughout New York and New England, playing an important role in preserving the biodiversity of the region. By preying on deer, moose and smaller predators, wolves kept herds healthy, prevented overbrowsing of the forest and protected habitat for small mammals and ground-nesting birds. But the howl of the wolf has been silent in the Northeast for nearly a century. Persecution of the northeastern wolf began in 1630 when the Massachusetts Bay Colony paid bounty hunters an average month’s salary for each wolf killed. For the next three centuries, as settlement extended across the continent, hunters shot, poisoned, trapped, dynamited and burned wolves. Fortunately, attitudes have changed. Scientists now understand that wolves are important to ecosystems. Public support for wolf recovery also has increased over the last two decades as better education dispels the myth of the “big, bad wolf.”
Defenders continues to explore the issues surrounding wolf recovery. Wolves have been gone from the Northeast for more than a century, and many ecologists fear we may not realize the full ecological impacts of their absence for generations to come. Defenders of Wildlife believes restoring wolves fulfills an obligation to our environment, to the wolf and to future generations. Like many other ecosystems, those in the Northeast will not regain full ecological integrity until its top predator is restored. Defenders of Wildlife advocates for a careful assessment of the potential biological, sociological and economic impacts of wolf recovery in the Northeast.
The first step for any species restoration program is to examine the biological factors affecting recovery, such as habitat availability, prey base and road density. Studies have shown that suitable habitat and sufficient prey exist for wolves northern Maine, northern New Hampshire, Vermont and Adirondack Park in upstate New York. This research suggests that the Northeast could support at least 1,200 wolves and perhaps as many as 1,800. Wolf recovery could take place in one of two ways. The first, natural recolonization, would depend on wolves dispersing from populations in Canada into the United States on their own. The second, reintroduction, would involve capturing wolves from Canadian populations and relocating them into suitable habitat in the Northeast. Biologists are debating which method is more likely to succeed. Some biologists argue that if moose can recolonize, so can wolves. Others argue that the region is heavily populated, with a network of busy roads and the St. Lawrence Seaway all standing between Canada’s wolves and New England. A strong wolf-hunting and trapping tradition in Canada also could impede natural dispersal. Wolf recovery could happen more quickly if FWS captured Canadian wolves and released them in suitable areas in the Northeast. Moving entire wolf packs together also would reduce the potential for interbreeding between coyotes and lone wolves moving into the eastern United States on their own. Defenders will support reintroduction if the environmental assessment indicates it is necessary for successful recovery.
Additional issues must be addressed to further restoration efforts. A Defenders-sponsored feasibility study in the Adirondacks found that, while the park can hold a small number of wolves, the long-term survivability of those wolves – absent management intervention – is questionable. Future development may degrade needed habitats and the remaining potential corridors to other wolf populations. Further, geneticists have complicated the issue by suggesting that the eastern wolf is not the same species that once inhabited states to the west. Instead these wolves might be more closely related to the endangered red wolves of the Southeast.
Because a broad base of public support is necessary for wolf recovery to occur, regardless of the method, we remain committed to making sure that stakeholders and the public become involved in discussions with state and federal agencies. We convened a Citizens Advisory Committee in northern New York to examine Adirondack recovery issues and have organized several meetings with FWS and stakeholder groups throughout the Northeast. Defenders also serves on the steering committee of the Coalition to Restore the Eastern Wolf, a coalition consisting of more than 30 organizations that support the recovery of viable populations of the wolf in as much of its former range in the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada.
Defenders believes that there are biological, economic, and ethical reasons for restoring wolves to the Northeast and that the majority of the public supports this initiative. We are eager to work with area residents and local organizations to create a win-win situation in the Northeast.
Gray Wolves in the East
Wolves have long fascinated us — the howling, the eyes, the powerful body, the close family structure, the hint of danger. From The Big Bad Wolf to Never Cry Wolf, from Native American reverence to wildlife conservation reintroduction, wolves are woven through the fabric of human culture for centuries.
Wolves once lived in nearly every state, but now the only state with an abundance of gray wolves is Minnesota, although Wisconsin and Michigan also have healthy gray wolf populations. Red wolves, a different species of North American wolf, live in the southeastern United States. Both the red wolf and the gray wolf are protected by the Endangered Species Act. (The Mexican wolf, which lives in the Southwest, is a subspecies of the gray wolf.)
In the 13-state Northeast Region, we have potential wolf habitat across northern New England and upstate New York, but we have no confirmed wild wolves living here .
Reintroducing Wolves In the Northeast
What is happening with the idea of restoring gray wolves to the northeastern U.S.? The Northern Forest Ecosystem, a 26 million acre forested area from the Adirondack Mountains of New York east through most of Maine, contains suitable gray wolf habitat and lies within the historical range of the gray wolf. Although two animals believed to be wolves were found in Maine during the 1990s and an additional wolf was found in upstate New York, a breeding population is not known to occur there today.
Significant educational efforts by private conservation groups have helped to develop interest in wolf recovery in those areas. The Service is considering options for a recovery strategy. In the meantime, protection remains in place for any naturally occurring wolves that migrate to the United States from Canada.
Links about the Gray Wolf
For wolf photos, see National Digital Library
“A Perspective on the Genetic Composition of Eastern Coyotes” by Steven M. Chambers, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Albuquerque, N.M., published in Northeastern naturalist Vol. 17, No. 2, pp 205-210.