The hauntingly beautiful gray wolf once roamed across most of North America but was nearly killed off by the 1930s, mostly for its fur. In the following years, as more people moved West, the gray wolf risked extinction and was placed on the endangered-species list in the mid-1970s.
Last week, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) declared the gray wolf had met its recovery goals in some 32 states of the US. Its status has improved to "threatened." Some 3,000 wolves now roam Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. An additional 660 in 44 packs are in Montana, Idaho, and the Yellowstone area. Wolves remain endangered in most of the Southwest, including Texas.
The FWS hopes the reclassification will give states and ranchers more flexibility to locally manage the now more robust wolf population with responsible plans. That should ultimately make it easier for wolves and humans to coexist. Ranchers will be able to shoot wolves but only if the animals attack livestock. This isn't expected to threaten the species again.
Conservation groups say that just because the wolf has met FWS recovery goals doesn't mean it has regained its historic territory. The Endangered Species Act, however, was not designed to return animals to an imagined, glorious past. Its goal is to prevent species from becoming extinct.
FWS spokesman Chris Tollefson goes further when he says, "The act isn't supposed to be a perpetual-care ward for these species. We need to recover them and get them off."
In fact, for more than 25 years, the act has served to protect creatures such as the Florida panther, a large predator that needs a large "prey base" to sustain itself; its habitat, however, has been severely limited by population growth, and the panther likely won't be removed from the endangered list.
The FWS has had success in restoring the populations of peregrine falcons and bald eagles (expected to be off the "threatened" list soon), along with the gray wolf. That such animals are meeting therecovery goals (the wolf even exceeded them) and are thriving in the wild, proves these magnificent creatures and humans can thrive together.