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A gray wolf hunts near Chewelah, Wash. (Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife/TNS). A gray wolf hunts near Chewelah, Wash. (Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife/TNS).

A gray wolf hunts near Chewelah, Wash. (Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife/TNS).

By Laura Schulte May 21, 2024

Wolf populations have recovered in some parts of the country. In others, that is not the case.

If Your Time is short

  • Gray wolves have drawn bitter controversy in recent decades, mostly over whether the growing populations should be protected by the federal government, or if hunting seasons should be permitted

  • It’s true that in the Northern Rockies and the Western Great Lakes regions that wolf populations have reached healthy levels under protections from the endangered species designation

  • That wolves are still not seen in most of the lower 48 states means that the population has not returned to what it once was, before the animals were overhunted.

Gray wolves bring mixed feelings in Wisconsin and other places where the animals have repopulated over the last several decades. 

While advocates support strong protections for the animals, many farmers see them as a nuisance. And for hunters, a wolf can be the ultimate prize. 

No matter where the debate falls, in Wisconsin gray wolves are under the federal protections of the endangered species list, meaning they can’t be hunted or killed for any reason. The animals were relisted in February 2022, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel report from Feb. 10, 2022.

U.S. Rep. Tom Tiffany, a Republican from Minocqua, and others strongly disagree with the recent relisting of the wolves.

In an April 30, 2024 post on X, formerly known as Twitter, the representative pushed for delisting. 

"The science is clear — the gray wolf has met and exceeded recovery goals," he said. 

What’s up with gray wolves?

In Wisconsin, wolves have become a bitter topic, resulting in hours of testimony over the Department of Natural Resources’ proposal to maintain a flexible number of animals in the state. Most recently, the Republican-controlled Legislature tried to overrule the agency, but failed, according to a Sept. 22, 2023, report from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

As of late 2022, Wisconsin had 972 wolves in 288 packs.

Elsewhere, there has also been a struggle over what to do with wolves, and how large of a population needs to be maintained. 

In 2020, the federal government under former President Donald Trump removed wolves from the endangered species list, allowing for the animals to be hunted for the first time in decades, according to a Feb. 12, 2022, CNN report. As a result, states like Wisconsin opened hunting for the first time in years. For the Badger state, the uncoordinated season resulted in hunters killing more than 215 gray wolves, nearly double the state’s quota for the hunt.

But in 2022, under President Joe Biden, gray wolves were again listed as endangered, meaning they could no longer be hunted. While the number of wolves in Wisconsin and Michigan have rebounded in recent years under protections, other states are still working to reestablish a population. 

According to CNN, without the protections, wolf populations on the West Coast and in the Southern Rocky Mountains would be particularly vulnerable, and there would be a risk of losing wolves forever in those areas.

So, have populations rebounded enough to delist gray wolves?

When we asked Tiffany’s office about the claim, Communications Director Caroline Briscoe responded with several documents based on information from the U.S. Department of the Interior. 

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They all included a variation of the same message, that wolves had recovered in the two main regions of the country where repopulation efforts were focused, the Great Lakes and the Rocky Mountains.

One of the documents shared, a 2022 op-ed in USA Today by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland even uses similar language to Tiffany’s post: "gray wolves recovered from near extinction."

And information from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service upheld that conclusion, too. 

"In total, the gray wolf population in the lower 48 states is more than 6,000 wolves, greatly exceeding the combined recovery goals for the Northern Rocky Mountains and Western Great Lakes populations," said an Oct. 29, 2020, release from the agency. 

The release notes that the wolf population in the Western Great Lakes is the largest outside of Alaska, a testament to the species’ recovery, and says it was up to individual states to now craft their own strong protections.

But not all researchers and experts agree that the population has recovered.

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, an activist organization that aims to protect endangered species, wolves have made a recovery, but not enough to no longer need some kind of protection and management.

"Despite these substantial gains amid extreme challenges, the job of wolf recovery is far from over," the Center website said. 

"Wolves need connected populations for genetic sustainability, and natural ecosystems need wolves to maintain a healthy balance of species. Yet today wolves occupy less than 10% of their historic range and continue to face persecution."

Other researchers have also pointed out that there are not wolves in many of the states they once roamed outside of the federally designated zones, meaning the population is not yet fully recovered.

Our ruling

Tiffany claimed science has shown that "the gray wolf has met and exceeded recovery goals."

Gray wolves have seen significant population growth in two areas: the Great Lakes region and the Northern Rockies region, the two designated recovery regions for the animals.

Although wolves are thriving in those areas, environmental organizations argue that wolves are not seen across all of the lower 48 states they once roamed — meaning the population is not fully recovered. 

And removing protections from the animals could lead to overhunting, which could prevent populations from spreading, or limit the gene pool for the animals. 

We rate this claim Half True.

 

Our Sources

Tom Tiffany, Post on X, April 30, 2024

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Judge orders federal protection for gray wolves be restored," Feb. 10, 2022

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Wolf fight continues in Legislature with hearing for population quota for gray wolves," Sept. 22, 2023

CNN, "Federal judge reverses Trump era wildlife decision, restoring protections for the gray wolf," Feb. 12, 2022

Department of the Interior, "Management of Wolves," Sept. 21, 2016

Department of the Interior, "Secretary Haaland: Wolves have walked with us for centuries. States are weakening their protections," Feb. 2, 2022

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, "Trump administration returns management and protection of gray wolves to states and tribes following successful recovery efforts," Oct. 29, 2020

Committee on Natural Resources, "Legislative oversight field hearing on wolf management," April 20, 2024

The Center for Biological Diversity, "America’s Gray Wolves," May 10, 2024

The Natural Resources Defense Council, "America’s gray wolves get another real chance at recovery," April 21, 2022

Email conversation with Timothy Van Deelen, a professor in the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin - Madison and chair of the Environmental Conservation profession Masters Degree, May 10, 2024

 

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More by Laura Schulte

Wolf populations have recovered in some parts of the country. In others, that is not the case.

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