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Saving America’s Wolves

This gripping article draws the reader into the world of the American wolf, exploring how these fearsome and important creatures are making a comeback from near extinction and the threats they continue to face.

By Kristin Lewis
From the May 2018 Issue

Learning Objective: to explore how point of view affects a story

Lexiles: 930L, 800L
Other Key Skills: figurative language, key ideas and details, text structure, text features, text evidence, point of view
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AS YOU READ

What threats to wolves face?

Imagine you are a gray wolf in the Montana wilderness. You are one of the most fearsome predators on Earth. Your 42 razor-sharp teeth can rip flesh and crush bone. You can sniff out a deer a mile away. Animals many times your size flee in terror at the sight of you.

You aren’t just any wolf either. You are the alpha of your pack. That means you are the leader. You dominate the seven other wolves in your pack, standing tall and proud over them. You decide when the pack eats and when the pack travels. You also decide when the pack hunts.

Your kills are as dramatic as a high-speed car chase in an action movie. You will stalk a herd of elk for days and days before choosing one to eat. You aren’t afraid to go after an elk that is 500 pounds heavier than you, though you do prefer the weakest ones—the oldest or youngest or sickest.

When you’re ready to strike, you and your pack work together in deadly harmony. You chase your target until it’s alone, separated from its herd and utterly exhausted. Then you and your pack pounce, latching on to the elk’s neck and legs with your powerful jaws—until at last the elk collapses in a bloody heap.

You and your pack then begin to feast, your bellies swelling with flesh, your faces turning red with blood.

As a wolf, you are more than a magnificent predator: You are an apex predator—at the top of the food chain. But in spite of your powers, you face many threats. One kick from an elk or a moose can break your jaw. Diseases like mange can cause you to lose your fur, leaving you shivering in the cold. Other wolves can challenge you to a deadly fight for control of your territory.

But there is one creature that threatens you more than any other.

Humans.

For hundreds of years, humans in America have hunted, poisoned, and trapped your kind. They have driven your species almost to extinction.

And they aren’t finished with you yet.

Imagine you are a gray wolf in the Montana wilderness. You are one of the most fearsome predators on Earth. Your 42 razor-sharp teeth rip flesh and crush bone. You can sniff out a deer a mile away. Animals many times your size flee in terror at the sight of you.

You aren’t just any wolf either. You’re the alpha of your pack. That means you are the leader. You dominate the seven other wolves in your pack, standing tall and proud over them. You decide when the pack eats and when the pack travels. You also decide when the pack hunts.

Your kills are as dramatic as a car chase in an action movie. You will stalk a herd of elk for days before choosing one to eat. You will go after an elk that is 500 pounds heavier than you, though you do prefer the weakest ones— the oldest, youngest, or sickest.

When you’re ready to strike, you and your pack work together. You chase your target until it’s alone, separated from its herd and exhausted. And then you and your pack pounce, latching on to the elk’s neck and legs with your powerful jaws until the elk collapses in a heap.

Then you and your pack begin to feast, your bellies swelling with flesh, your faces turning red with blood.

As a wolf, you are more than a great predator. You’re an apex predator—at the top of the food chain. Still, you face many threats. One kick from an elk or a moose can break your jaw. Diseases like mange can cause you to lose your fur, leaving you shivering in the cold. Other wolves can challenge you to a deadly fight for control of your territory.

But there is one creature that threatens you more than any other.

Humans.

For hundreds of years, humans in America have hunted, poisoned, and trapped your kind. They have driven your species almost to extinction.

And they aren’t finished with you yet.

It’s a brisk winter day, and you and your pack are trotting through the snow when you sense that a human is drawing near. Fear washes over you. A member of your own pack was recently shot by a human. You tried to help him as best you could, licking his coat and bringing him food.

But he did not survive his wounds. You still mourn his loss. Is a human now coming to kill you too?

It’s a brisk winter day. You and your pack are trotting through the snow when you sense that a human is drawing near. Fear washes over you. A member of your pack was recently shot by a human. You tried to help him. You licked his coat and brought him food. But he did not survive his wounds. You still miss him.

Is a human now coming to kill you too?

Ana Gram/Shutterstock.com

A Wolf's Powers

  • A wolf marks its territory with urine and scat, and with oils from scent glands. These glands are found at the base of its tail and on other parts of its body.
  • A wolf’s sense of smell is 100 times better than a human’s.
  • Wolves howl to communicate with each other. They may share in a group howl before a hunt.
  • Two layers of fur keep a wolf dry and warm—even in subzero temperatures. Fur is shed in spring and regrows in fall.

The Big Bad Wolf

Flashback to hundreds of years earlier: Back then, your ancestors were also stalked by humans. These humans despised your kind because you terrified them. They didn’t understand your ways.

To America’s first European settlers, you were more than just a nuisance that ate their chickens and goats. You were a stone-cold killer, a monster even. In the stories they told their children, you were the villain that devoured Little Red Riding Hood’s poor grandmother.

Before the 1800s, as many as 2 million of your kind lived in America. You roamed the dense forests of New England, you howled across the deserts of the Southwest, you waded through the icy rivers of the Rocky Mountains.

But as humans spread out across North America, your kind was dying out. You were shot by the guns of pioneers. You died from eating poisoned animal carcasses left out by humans. Your head was chopped off and sold for money. Your fur was turned into fashionable hats and coats for humans to wear.

And then you were gone.

By the 1920s, in most parts of America, none of your kind was left.

Flashback to hundreds of years ago. Back then, your ancestors were also stalked by humans. These humans despised your kind because you scared them. They didn’t understand your ways.

To America’s first European settlers, you were more than just a nuisance that ate their chickens and goats. You were a stone-cold killer, a monster even. In the stories they told their children, you were the villain that ate Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother.

Before the 1800s, as many as 2 million of your kind lived in America. You roamed the forests of New England. You howled across the deserts of the Southwest. You waded through the icy rivers of the Rocky Mountains.

But as humans spread out across North America, your kind was dying out. You were shot by the guns of pioneers. You died from eating the poisoned meat left out by humans. Your head was chopped off and sold for money. Your fur was turned into hats and coats for humans to wear.

And then you were gone. By the 1920s, in most parts of America, none of your kind was left.

Jim Brandenburg/Minden Pictures

WOLF PUPS

Wolf pups are born in the spring. Newborn pups can’t see or hear, and each is roughly the size of a soda can. Their eyes open after about two weeks, and they step out of their dens in about three weeks. By the time pups are 6 months old, they are almost as big as the adults. To feed pups, a wolf may regurgitate—that is, vomit—meat for the pups to enjoy.

Not A Monster

But not all humans hated your kind. Not all of them wanted you dead.

In the 1970s, many humans began to realize that you are not the monster from fairy tales, that those stories had been greatly exaggerated. It is not in your nature to attack humans. You are afraid of them and avoid them whenever you can.

Humans began to understand that the Earth needs you.

After your species disappeared, the populations of elk exploded. That’s because wolf packs like yours weren’t there to hunt them. The elk gobbled up trees and grasses that other animals needed for survival. Birds couldn’t build their nests. Beavers couldn’t build their dams. Without beavers building dams in rivers, the rivers became more powerful and deep, which changed the types of plants that could grow nearby. In addition, coyotes, ravens, and other scavenging animals lost a food source: They could no longer pick at the carcasses that wolves left behind after a kill.

Today, scientists have a special name for animals like you: keystone species. Like sharks and lions, you are a necessary part of the habitats where you live. Without you, ecosystems drastically change.

Many humans began to say that killing off wolves had been a terrible mistake. So in the 1990s, experts from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hatched a bold plan.

To bring you back.

But not all humans hated your kind. Not all of them wanted you dead.

In the 1970s, many humans began to realize that you are not the monster from fairy tales. It’s not in your nature to attack humans. You are afraid of them. You avoid them whenever you can.

Humans began to understand that the Earth needs you.

After wolves disappeared, the populations of elk exploded. That’s because wolf packs like yours weren’t around to hunt them. The elk ate trees and grasses that other animals needed for survival. Birds couldn’t build their nests. Beavers couldn’t build their dams. Without beavers building dams in rivers, the rivers became more powerful and deep, which changed the types of plants that could grow nearby. And coyotes, ravens, and other scavenging animals lost a food source: They could no longer pick at the carcasses that wolves behind after a kill.

Today, scientists have a special name for animals like you: keystone species. Like sharks and lions, you are a necessary part of the habitats where you live. Without you, ecosystems drastically change.

Many humans began to say that killing off wolves had been a big mistake. So in the 1990s, experts from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made a plan.

To bring you back.

Once Again Howling

Jim McMahon/Mapman®

WOLVES IN THE U.S.

It’s generally accepted that there are two species of wolf: the red wolf and the gray wolf. In the lower 48 states of the U.S., some wolf populations are considered threatened or endangered. But in Alaska, wolves have never been endangered.  Today, as many as 11,200 wolves live there.

In the mid-1990s, wildlife experts caught 31 gray wolves up in Canada. These wolves were brought down and set free in central Idaho as well as in Yellowstone National Park—2.2 million acres of protected wilderness in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho. Scientists hoped that these wolves would reproduce and form new packs.

To the joy of those scientists, that is exactly what happened.

In less than two decades, there were 1,600 wolves in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. In fact, you can trace your family history to those first wolves brought from Canada. They are your relatives—your great-great- great grandparents.

Many humans were thrilled to hear your kind once again howling across your ancestral home. Thousands of tourists now flock to Yellowstone National Park every year, hoping to catch a glimpse of you in your natural habitat. You have dazzled and inspired new generations of wolf lovers. Many scientists spend their days studying you, and they are learning more and more about your amazing ways. They say that you are helping to repair the ecosystem in Yellowstone too. Elk populations are now much smaller and healthier, in part because of wolf packs like yours. The government says you are no longer endangered there.

But not all humans are happy about your return. Some human hunters resent that you catch and kill the same prey they do. Some ranchers are angry because some of your kind are once again preying on their cattle—after all, livestock is far easier for you to hunt than wild elk and moose. (The government pays ranchers for any livestock killed by wolves, though proving that a wolf was responsible can be complicated.) Some humans say there are too many of you now—that you wander off protected lands and into places where humans live. Some states have allowed humans to once again hunt your kind outside of national parks.

You have stirred up a fierce debate among humans. Right now, some humans are arguing that you should be protected, even in places where your numbers are stable and healthy. They say that hunting your kind shouldn’t be allowed.

Indeed, dedicated teams of humans are working on your behalf. In conservation centers wolves are being bred and raised with the goal of restoring them to their ancestral habitats. These conservation centers also lead educational programs to help other humans understand how special and necessary you are.

In the mid-1990s, wildlife experts caught 31 gray wolves up in Canada. These wolves were brought down and set free in central Idaho and in Yellowstone National Park—2.2 million acres of protected wilderness in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho. Scientists hoped that these wolves would have pups and form new packs.

And that’s what happened.

In less than 20 years, there were 1,600 wolves in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. In fact, you can trace your family history to those first wolves brought from Canada. They are your great-great-great grandparents.

Many humans were thrilled to hear your kind once again howling across your ancestral home. Thousands of tourists now come to Yellowstone every year, hoping to catch sight of you. You have inspired new generations of wolf lovers. Scientists spend their days studying you and learning about your ways. They say that you are helping to repair the ecosystem in Yellowstone too. Elk populations are now much smaller and healthier, in part because of wolf packs like yours. The government says you are no longer endangered there.

But not all humans are happy about your return. Some human hunters resent that you catch and kill the same prey they do. Some ranchers are angry because some of your kind are again preying on their cattle—after all, livestock is easier for you to hunt than wild elk and moose. (The government pays ranchers for livestock killed by wolves, though proving that a wolf was to blame can be complicated.) Some humans say there are too many of you now—that you wander off protected lands and into places where humans live. Some states have allowed humans to once again hunt your kind outside of national parks.

You have stirred up a debate among humans. Some humans say that you should be protected, even in places where your numbers are stable and healthy. They say that hunting your kind should not be allowed.

Across America, teams of humans are working to help you. In conservation centers, wolves are being bred and raised with the goal of restoring them to their ancestral habitats. These centers also lead educational programs to help other humans understand how special and important you are.

Keith Crowley/Alamy Stock Photo

WOLF TERRITORY

A wolf pack’s territory is the area in which it lives, hunts, and raises its pups. Packs defend their territory against other wolves. Gray wolf territories may be less than 100 square miles in the lower 48 states and more than 1,000 square miles in Alaska and Canada. 

Coming Home

Which brings us back to you on that winter day when you sense a human nearby.

You do not know what is about to happen. But your instincts tell you that you are in mortal danger.

Suddenly, a deafening noise thunders from the sky. The noise comes from a helicopter, but you don’t know what a helicopter is.

You break into a full-speed run, zigzagging across the snow. But you aren’t fast enough to outrun the flying metal monster that is chasing you.

Minutes pass.

Your muscles ache. You grow weary. But you don’t stop running.

The helicopter swoops low. There is a man perched inside, and he has something aimed at you.

And then—

Click.

Your body collapses. Everything goes dark.

Which brings us back to you on that winter day when you sense a human nearby.

You don’t know what’s about to happen. But your instincts tell you that you are in danger.

Suddenly, a deafening noise thunders from the sky. The noise comes from a helicopter, but you don’t know what a helicopter is.

You break into a full-speed run. But you aren’t fast enough to outrun the flying metal monster that is chasing you.

Minutes pass.

Your muscles ache. You grow weary. But you keep running.

The helicopter swoops low. There is a man inside, and he has something aimed at you.

And then—

Click.

Your body collapses. Everything goes dark.

Martin W. Grosnick/Ardea/Biosphoto

RADIO COLLARS

Scientists use radio collars like this to track and study wolves. When trying to collar a wolf, scientists in helicopters are careful not to chase any wolf for too long. If they can’t catch a wolf within a few minutes, they leave and try another day. That way, the wolf doesn’t become too stressed or exhausted. 

You are not dead.

This human did not come to kill you. He came to help you. It was not a bullet that hit you. It was a tranquilizer dart, which has put you into a deep sleep.

The helicopter lands nearby. A man hops out and rushes to your side. He is a wildlife expert who has dedicated his life to studying and caring for your species. He and his highly trained team set up a makeshift station in the snow. They take your blood to study and see what diseases you’ve been exposed to. They weigh you, check your teeth, and measure your paw size. They record their observations in their journals.

They work quickly; they must finish before you wake up. They know that if you are exposed to humans, you could lose your fear and you may be more likely to wander closer to where people live. That could put you in danger.

Finally, they put a collar around your neck that has a special radio inside. This radio collar will help them track your movements and learn more about your habits and behavior. Everything they learn will help them better understand you and your kind.

Of course, you don’t know any of this. You are still fast asleep.

When you wake up, the human who had been chasing you seems to be gone. So too is that terrible noise.

You stand, snow flecking your muzzle. You lift your head high and let out a long howl.

In the distance, your pack howls back to you.

They are waiting for you to come home.

You are not dead.

This human did not come to kill you. He came to help you. It was not a bullet that hit you. It was a tranquilizer dart, which has put you into a deep sleep.

The helicopter lands nearby. A man hops out and rushes to your side. He is a wildlife expert. He has dedicated his life to studying and caring for your kind. He and his team set up a temporary station in the snow. Then they get to work. They take your blood to study and see what diseases you’ve been exposed to. They weigh you. They check your teeth and measure your paw size. They record everything they learn in their journals.

They work quickly; they must finish before you wake up. They know that if you are exposed to humans, you could lose your fear and you may be more likely to wander closer to where people live. That could put you in danger.

Finally, they put a collar around your neck that has a special radio inside. This radio collar will help them track your movements and learn more about your habits and behavior. What they learn will help them better understand you and your kind.

Of course, you don’t know any of this. You are still fast asleep.

When you wake up, the human who had been chasing you seems to be gone. That terrible noise is gone too.

You stand, snow flecking your muzzle. You lift your head high and let out a long howl.

In the distance, your pack howls back to you.

They are waiting for you to come home.