Monday, June 3, 2019

Keep Wolves Protected: Part 2. Dispersing Wolves Need the ESA



The US Fish and Wildlife Service wants to delist gray wolves in the lower 48. This is the second in a series of posts explaining why wolves should remain protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Dispersal is a fact of wolf life. Wolves naturally leave their birth packs to find a mate, available territory, or both. Oregon’s famous wolf OR-7 exemplified this with his journey of thousands of miles from Oregon to California and back to Oregon. He dispersed from eastern Oregon in September of 2011, and within weeks became the first wild wolf to set paw in western Oregon in sixty-five years. The route he travelled helped save his life. 

A few months before he dispersed, wolves in eastern Oregon had been removed from protection of the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) via a congressional rider attached by Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) and Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont) to a must-pass budget bill. This was a political, not a scientific, delisting. Luckily for OR-7, wolves remained protected under the ESA in western Oregon and California. 

Passing through these protected lands, steadfast OR-7 eventually found a mate—another disperser—and by 2014 the two of them created the Rogue Pack. Since they are still in protected western Oregon and still a breeding pair, the story of dispersing doesn’t end. An offspring of the Rogue Pack dispersed into northern California and is now the alpha male of California’s only wolf pack. He and the alpha female—who dispersed from elsewhere in the Northern Rockies—have produced pups.  

These packs provide proof that protection under the ESA helps wolves succeed in their biological drive to find mates and new territory.

Though western Oregon still has a lot of suitable—and open—wolf territory, the Rogue Pack is one of only two packs in that half of the state. Both packs had pups in 2018 that survived to the end of the year. (Two Rogue Pack pups are pictured above.) There are also a few other wolves that are not in packs or breeding pairs, according to Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife records. Eight years after OR-7 became the first wolf in western Oregon, around a dozen wolves roam the western half of the state and are still protected by the federal ESA. But if the US Fish and Wildlife Service delists wolves throughout the lower 48, these wolves will be under the much-contested Oregon Wolf Plan and subject to lethal control.

OR-16. Photo via ODFW

A dispersing wolf traveling in or to a state where it is not federally protected from hunting, trapping, or poaching faces deadly risk, since every state that manages wolves allows them to be killed in various ways. OR-7’s sister left Oregon and was killed by an Idaho trapper. OR-9 and OR-16 (pictured above) also died in Idaho—from gunshots. OR-18 ran that Idaho gauntlet only to walk into the gunsights of a Montana poacher. 

This killing of dispersers happens around the U.S., according to “Making Room for Wolf Recovery” a report from the Center for Biological Diversity. The report makes the case that dead dispersers confirm the need for continued federal protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The passage of the 1973 ESA enabled wolves—one by one and year by year—to reclaim a smidgen of the territory we had stolen from them with guns, traps, poison, and fire. Before the ESA, the only wild wolves left in the lower 48 were in remote areas in northern Minnesota and on Michigan’s Isle Royale. But with federal protection wolves successfully dispersed eastward to northern Wisconsin. Then Wisconsin wolves drifted further east to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, mingling there with wolves from Minnesota and Ontario. 

Under the protection of the ESA, descendants of wolves reintroduced into Yellowstone and Idaho dispersed into Montana, as did others from Canada. Wolves from British Columbia slipped across the border into Washington. Some of Idaho’s wolves swam the Snake River, adopted Oregon, and formed the pack into which OR-7 was born and from which he dispersed. 

When wolves from distinctly different packs find each other and produce offspring, they maintain the genetic health of the wolf population of the lower 48. As an extreme example of how limited genetic diversity can harm a wolf population, look at the wolves of Isle Royale. “The wolves on Isle Royale, which once numbered as many as 50, have been mostly isolated for generations, and the population has been overrun with spinal defects likely as a result of the inbreeding,” according to an article in Science. 

The ESA is essential to protect dispersers from hunting and trapping and help them find genetically different mates in new geographic areas. The dispersal of wolves from recovery areas to new states under federal protection has occurred 58 times over 30 years according to that Center for Biological Diversity report. The report also analyzed numerous research papers that found plenty of unused habitat suitable for dispersers—just as those dispersers to protected western Oregon found suitable habitat. The Center states that the current population of wolves in the lower 48 could almost double if federal protections were retained and efforts were made to restore wolves to some of the territory they once called home.


The Center’s map shows that the western wolf states—Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Washington, California, and Oregon—have room for more wolves. Still more exciting: there’s plenty of gray wolf habitat in other states including:

  • Maine
  • New Hampshire
  • Vermont
  • New York
  • Texas
  • New Mexico
  • Arizona
  • Colorado
  • Utah

Even if wolves filled these new areas and doubled their population, they would still occupy only about 10 percent of their original habitat. Wolves once roamed in 41 of the lower 48 states but now survive in only 10. Wolves are by no means out of danger of being endangered.

Wolves are driven to disperse, and, unfortunately, some states are just as driven to kill wolves once wolf management is returned to those states upon the removal of ESA protection. 

It’s up to the US Fish and Wildlife Service to believe the science, doubt the anti-wolf lobby, and do the right thing: continue federal protection under the Endangered Species Act in the lower 48 so that dispersers can find mates, claim new territory, and maintain the population’s genetic health.

You Can Help Protect Dispersers

The USFWS has extended the deadline for comments on their proposed nationwide delisting of gray wolves. You have until midnight on July 15 and can comment here. Thanks for taking the time to write an effective comment!

To read PART 1 and about how to write an effective comment.


Award-winning Indie author Rick Lamplugh writes, speaks, and photographs to protect wildlife and wild lands. His bestselling In the Temple of Wolves and the award-winning sequel, Deep into Yellowstone, are available signed from Rick or unsigned on Amazon.



Rick's new book, The Wilds of Aging, is the prequel to In the Temple of Wolves and is available signed or on Amazon.



Photo of Oregon wolves by ODFW

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