Wolves are highly social, living in packs of various sizes and family structures that can change based on individual personalities. As apex predators, wolves play an essential role in ecosystems around the world. Healthy wolf populations can help to prevent overgrazing by herbivores and redistribute nutrients to other wildlife. Despite their fairytale-inspired reputation as “big, bad” villains, wolves rarely interact with people, and the few encounters that do occur result from habituation, the process by which a wild animal or population becomes accustomed to human presence.
Globally, the species is considered to be of “least concern” by IUCN, although wolf populations face substantial threats throughout much of their range.
Where do wolves live?
Parts of North America, Europe, and Asia with larger populations of wolves mostly restricted to remote areas of Eastern Europe, Northern Asia, Alaska, and parts of Canada.
Forests, deserts, grasslands, and everything in between, including developed environments such as agricultural land.
Once the most widely spread mammal in the world, centuries of the one-two punch of habitat loss and direct persecution by governments, private hunters and trappers has reduced gray wolves’ range and population size. This ecologically essential species is still found on most continents, but larger populations of wolves are mostly restricted to remote or wilderness areas.
Habitat destruction and intentional killing—including with cruel traps and deadly poisons—are the top threats to gray wolves. These animals are mostly found in wild landscapes and, as remote areas become developed and fragmented, vital habitat is lost.
Wolves continue to be the target of government-sponsored killing in many countries across the globe. In Canada, wolves are not only trapped and killed for recreational and commercial purposes, they are also the target of government-led slaughters in British Columbia, Alberta and the Northwest Territories that are designed to inflate populations of prey species like woodland caribou (though evidence shows no benefit to those prey species). In parts of Canada and the U.S., deadly poisons—which threaten non-target wildlife, as well as pets and even people—are also used to kill wolves in a misguided effort to prevent predation on farmed animals.
Such taxpayer-funded extermination programs may involve the use of indiscriminate, toxicant-laced baits, which are left on wildlands to poison any species that may be attracted to the bait. Aerial shooting is also used to haphazardly kill these iconic animals, as is the practice of radio tracking wolves to find and exterminate entire packs.
In both Canada and the U.S., IFAW is supporting legislation and regulations that would stop the use of the poisons such as sodium cyanide, strychnine, and Compound 1080 to kill wolves and other species. The use of these poisons is inhumane and unethical, as they cause intense suffering and a prolonged, excruciatingly painful death. In addition to being cruel, ecologically disruptive, and unjustifiably dangerous to the public, research shows that killing wolves is ineffective as a long-term means of reducing wolf-livestock conflict.
In contrast, wolves are strictly protected in the EU, and packs have started to repopulate certain parts of their historic range and have established themselves in parts of Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and Switzerland. In Europe, the focus of our work has been raising public awareness, monitoring the wolf repopulation, and enabling the coexistence of wolves and livestock farmers. We support the implementation of livestock protection measures such as wolf-safe fencing, livestock protection dogs, and researching of wolf deterrent mechanisms that would prevent attacks on farmed animals.
In the U.S., wolves were reintroduced into the lower 48 states in the 1990s after being wiped out during the preceding century, and have since reprised their role as an integral part of their ecosystems, including the landscapes in and around Yellowstone National Park. Populations in both North America and Europe, though recovering, will need ongoing protection before they—and the ecological services that they provide—are truly sustainable.
How can you help?
Wolves are largely misunderstood. IFAW’s mentality is that coexistence is better than conflict, though people’s relationship with native wildlife is often that of conflict. Animals such as coyotes, wolves, bears, and beavers are considered “nuisances” and are treated as something to be controlled.