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Facts about Wolves for Kids

Wolves once roamed most of the Northern Hemisphere, including much of the United States, Europe, and the Middle East. Like humans, wolves crossed the Bering land bridge during the Ice Age to range throughout North America, from the Arctic to central Mexico. Both wolf species, the gray (Canis lupus) and the red (Canis rufus), were found in the United States, though the latter lived only in the Southeast. Most literature, popular knowledge, and economic concerns about the wolf involve the gray wolf, also known as the timber wolf. The appearance of the gray wolf varies from pure white in the Arctic to black, gray, and tan in the lower forests and grasslands. A pack animal with well-ordered social systems, the wolf’s success depended on its ability to den, hunt, and defend its territory in groups of two to twenty. Adaptability to different climates and habitats, perhaps only excelled by humans, meant the size and number of prey determined the wolf’s travels. Until the huge bison herds of the Great Plains were destroyed in the midnineteenth century, wolves were most abundant in North America‘s central prairies.

Most Native Americans revered the wolf, emulating its hunting tactics and incorporating the animal into their creation stories. The wolf was central to the Anishinabe (Ojibwa) culture of northern Michigan and was an important clan or totem animal for others. Europeans arrived from densely populated, agrarian countries with much darker attitudes. Though no human deaths from wolves have been reported in the United States, the wolf did compete for the same wild prey as settlers and killed domestic livestock when it could. Intense efforts quickly developed to eradicate the wolf in farming and ranching regions. In the 1840s prairie settlers poisoned wolves with strychnine, chased them with dogs, and shot them in circle hunts. Throughout the late nineteenth century local bounty programs paid for wolf scalps and pelts. Congress authorized funds in 1915 to trap and kill wolves on all public lands. By 1950 the wolf was nearly extinct in the United States. Only scattered packs remained in northern Minnesota and Michigan and remote regions of the Rocky Mountains.

Growing environmental concerns in the 1960s prompted the federal government to declare the wolf an endangered species in 1973. Governmental protections resulted in slow growth of wolf numbers, and in 1986 the first western-state wolf den in fifty years was found in Montana‘s Glacier National Park. Successful efforts to reintroduce the wolf to its former habitat in the 1990s, however, met resistance. To compensate, these programs allowed for payment for livestock killed and removal of the individual wolves responsible. American attitudes toward the wolf continued to be conflicted and passionate to the end of the twentieth century.