You are here:   Home » Fish & Wildlife » Species Conservation & Management » Wolf » Gray Wolf History

Gray Wolf History

Gray Wolf

Learn more about the Gray Wolf.

The gray wolf was extirpated from the western United States during the 1900s, primarily due to loss of habitat and conflicts with people. In 1884, the first statewide bounty law was passed in Montana. That first year, 5,450 wolf hides were presented for payment. All but three Montana counties reported a bounty payment for wolves from 1900 - 1931 (Riley 1998). Bounty payments were highest in eastern Montana counties, mirroring early explorers' observations of a close association between wolves and bison. Wolves as a self-sustaining, breeding population were probably extinct in Montana by the 1930's.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) listed the eastern timber wolf (Canis lupus lycaon) as endangered in 1967, and the northern Rocky Mountain subspecies (Canis lupus irremotus) as endangered in 1973. In 1978, the legal status of the gray wolf in North America was clarified by listing the Minnesota wolf population as threatened and all other members of the species Canis lupus south of Canada as endangered.

Although wolf packs were eliminated from Montana by the 1930s, tracks, scats, and/or observations of large canid-like animals were either reported or killed up until the 1970s. Most are thought to have been dispersers from Canada and little to no successful breeding activity was evidenced or sustained consistently through time.

In 1980, the Northern Rocky Mountain Wolf Recovery Team completed a plan which would guide wolf recovery efforts for a future wolf population in the northern Rockies of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. The recovery plan was revised in 1987. The plan designated three recovery areas - Northwestern Montana, Central Idaho, and the Greater Yellowstone - each of which included some portion of Montana.

Wolves from Canada began to colonize the Glacier National Park area in 1979, and the first wolf den in the western U.S. in over 50 years was documented there in 1986. The wolf population in northwest Montana grew as a result of natural reproduction and dispersal. By the end of 1994, there were about 48 wolves in and around Glacier National Park.

In 1995, three family groups (a total of 14 wolves) were captured near Alberta's Jasper National Park, transported to Yellowstone National Park, and placed in acclimation pens. They were held for 10 weeks prior to release. Two of the females subsequently denned and produced nine pups in Montana. Most settled in the same vicinity of their acclimation pens, demonstrating the potental advantages of a "soft" release technique.

Also in the winter of 1995, 15 wolves were reintroduced into the wilderness areas of central Idaho. These animals moved widely throughout central Idaho and behond. Many of these wolves moved north, some to the upper Bitterroot Valley. In 1996, three packs produced 11 pups.

In the winter of 1996, 17 wolves were captured near Fort St. Johns, British Columbia, Canada and were again released into acclimation pens in Yellowstone National Park through a "soft" release. Twenty wolves were released in central Idaho as a "hard" release.

Wolf populations in Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho grew rapidly and soon became a source for dispersers to Montana. New packs formed outside the earliest core wolf areas and overall wolf distribution expanded. Wolf dispersal has been documented between and among all three federal recovery areas and the states comprising the northern Rockies. By the end of 2002, the northern Rockies wolf population met the biological recovery criteria of at least 30 breeding pairs in the northern Rockies for three years in a row. By the end of 2004, there was an estimated 835 wolves and 66 breeding pairs in the tri-state area. In Montana, there were about 153 wolves in 15 breeding pairs.

Many people are concerned about the impact wolves may have on livestock. Although wolves feed primarily on big game animals, they occasionally do kill livestock and other domestic animals such as domestic dogs or llamas. In the tri-state area, a total of 429 cattle and 1,074 sheep have been confirmed killed by wolves between 1987 and 2004. In Montana, the total is 190 cattle and 409 sheep. USFWS and the State of Montana work with livestock producers to reduce the risk of wolf-caused losses and resolve conflicts through a combination of non-lethal deterrents and lethal control. Between 1987 and 2004, a total of 292 wolves have been killed in the tri-state area to resolve wolf-livestock conflicts and 166 wolves have been killed in Montana.

Many people were also concerned about big game populations and hunting opportunity as a result of wolf recovery. Wolves do have the potential to impact populations of deer, elk, and moose. How much of an impact varies in space and through time and most importantly, it varies with other environmental factors such as drought, severe winter, overall carnivore density, or general habitat conditions.

Research in Montana and elsewhere has shown that predation in general may influence deer, elk and moose populations through changes in survival of young, death of adult animals, or a combination of both. Wolf recovery probably will affect hunter opportunity in some areas and not in others. As for other populations whose numbers fluctuate, there is no clear answer except that wolves will add another factor to consider among all the environmental and social factors wildlife biologists wrestle with every year when setting big game regulations. Hunting opportunities are then adjusted in response to all factors combined.

Like many wild animals, wolves are capable of posing a threat to human safety, but such occurrences are rare. In the past 100 years, there have been several published accounts of human injuries due to wolves. In almost all cases where healthy wolves have attacked people, the wolf or wolves have been habituated to people and food conditioned prior to the attack. These factors also frequently contribute to bear attacks on people. It is unusual for a wild wolf to associate or interact with people, linger near buildlings, livestock or domestic dogs for extended periods of time. This behavior is more typical of a released captive wolf-dog hybrid, a wolf habituated to a domestic food source, or an unhealthy animal. Wolves may consider domestic dogs to be "trespassing" on their pack territory and may attack dogs, even when accompanied by people, without proviocation. Any wolf that displays unusual or threatening behavior should be reported to Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

Despite their wariness of people, wolves will still use natural habitats in close proximity to humans, particularly in forested areas and other settings along the "urban - wildland" interface.

The states of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming must each have federally-approved management plans and adequate regulatory mechanisms before the USFWS will propose to delist wolves from the Endangered Species Act. Montana employed an extensive, citizen-oriented process to develop its management plan between 2000 to 2003. Montana and Idaho each have approved plans, but Wyoming does not. In 2005, Montana completed a cooperative agreement with USFWS to begin implementing as much of the state plan as federal regulations will allow prior to delisting. Federal funding supports FWP's work.

Wolf conservation and management in Montana will carefully balance the interests and perspectives of a diverse public.