Is wolf hunting legal?

By: John Fuller
Wild mammals living in nature's harmony.
As wolf populations have drastically declined and then rebounded, laws regarding wolf hunting have tried to reflect these changes.
William F. Campbell/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

For an animal that probably only cares about survival, eating elk and surviving some more, the wolf has found itself in the middle of one of the most heated environmental debates in modern times. While people don't tear each other's throats out when the subject comes up, pro- and anti-wolf groups are passionate over whether or not humans should hunt wolves, and for many different reasons.

It wasn't always so. Before Europeans began arriving in the New World, about 250,000 wolves inhabited much of what we now know as the lower 48 states [source: Defenders of Wildlife]. Most Native American cultures respected wolves as mysterious and powerful spirits and valued their hunting skills and ability to bond as a pack.


As human populations in the West increased and ranchers needed more space for livestock, perceptions toward the wolf changed for the worse. Myths and legends of wolves as bloodthirsty animals made people afraid of wolves, and any attacks on cattle or sheep (which were typically gruesome) didn't help their case. The wolf quickly became an enemy to people whose sustenance depend­ed on the survival of their livestock, and the state of Montana began offering bounty rewards for wolf hides as early as 1884 [source: Montana Fish, Wildlife & Park].

­After trapping, shooting and poisoning by farmers and ranchers essentially pushed the gray wolf out of the northwest United States for most of the 20th century, wolves were placed on the endangered species list in 1974. Although it became officially illegal to hunt and kill wolves in the lower 48 United States, there weren't many to protect after they were systematically hunted out of the country -- the majority of gray wolves inhabited either Canada or Alaska.

Finally, beginning in 1995, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) officials took 66 wolves from Canada and reintroduced them into Yellowstone National Park. Within a little more than a decade, the wolf population in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming grew at a remarkable rate to about 2,000. Now that wolves have reached what some believe to be a healthy population, does this mean it's OK for hunters to dust off their rifles?


Wolf Management and Protection

For the moment, wolves are still protected in the lower 48 states, but as populations surge, the debate over hunting continues to rage.
For the moment, wolves are still protected in the lower 48 states, but as populations surge, the debate over hunting continues to rage.
William F. Campbell/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Currently in North America, it is only ­legal to hunt wolves in Alaska and Canada, where wolf populations have remained steady. Alaska has between 7,000 and 11,000 wolves roaming the land, the largest number in the United States, so the state has never had to put its wolves on the endangered species list. Classified as both big game and furbearers, licensed hunters can legally trap and hunt wolves in Alaska; the state also uses the controversial method of aerial hunting in its wolf control programs, which involves tracking wolves on the ground and in helicopters to find and shoot them [source: Alaska Department of Fish and Game]. For a fee, guides also offer personalized hunting trips. Canada hosts the world's largest wolf population of about 50,000, and hunters typically hunt wolves that stray from the borders of national parks.

In the lower 48 states, however, the issue has become significantly more complicated in recent years. After officials reintroduced wolves into the Yellowstone region, the story of their quick population burst was trumpeted as a success. On March 28, wolves were removed from the list of federally protected species in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. As always, people were allowed to kill wolves that attacked either a person or livestock -- in fact, several had been destroyed in Idaho and Montana throughout the reintroduction phase because of concerns over livestock decimation [source: Wilkinson].


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service caused outrage among environmentalists, however, when it gave states the right to allow the hunting of wolves in what it called "non-essential" populations -- larger groups of wolves that might be taking down too many elk or deer. Many feared the northwest and its wolf population would end up right back where it was in 1974, especially because the three states planned wolf trophy hunting seasons for the fall of 2008.

After much public outcry and a lawsuit to overturn the decision to delist, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy gave protection back to the wolves in July 2008. Molloy argued that the government hadn't met standards for a full wolf population recovery, noting that successful interbreeding between wolves in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming hadn't taken place. The FWS followed up in September 2008 by reversing its delisting rule, although public debate will most likely continue as wolf populations increase and officials study the impact of wolves in a more developed West.

For lots more information on wolves and wolf hunting, see the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "Wolf control in Alaska." (Nov. 17, 2008)
  • Brown, Matthew. "N. Rockies wolves get federal protection restored." National Geographic News. July 21, 2008. (Nov. 14, 2008)
  • COSMOS Magazine. "U.S. wolf hunt to resume." Jan. 31, 2008. (Nov. 10, 2008)
  • Defenders of Wildlife. "A brief history of the wolf in the United States." (Nov. 10, 2008)
  • Defenders of Wildlife. "Alaska wolves background." (Nov. 17, 2008) imperiled_species/wolves/wolf_recovery_efforts/alaska_wolves/background/index.php
  • Defenders of Wildlife. "Canada wolves." (Nov. 17, 2008) imperiled_species/wolves/wolf_recovery_efforts/canada_wolves/index.php
  • Defenders of Wildlife. "History of wolf control in Alaska." (Nov. 17, 2008) imperiled_species/wolves/wolf_recovery_efforts/alaska_wolves/ background/history_of_wolf_control_in_alaska/
  • Johnson, Kirk. "A divide as wolves rebound in a changing west." The New York Times. Jan. 2, 2008. (Nov. 10, 2008)
  • Kirkwood, Scott. "Off the list." National Parks Conservation Association. Summer 2008. (Nov. 14, 2008)
  • Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. "Gray wolf." (Nov. 10, 2008)
  • Revkin, Andrew. "Howling over federal plan to expand wolf killing." The New York Times. Jan. 24, 2008. (Nov. 10, 2008)
  • Robbins, Jim. "To kill and be killed." The Los Angeles Times. July 27, 2003. (Nov. 14, 2008)
  • Wilkinson, Todd. "Wolf vs. rancher: new chapter in the Old West dilemma." The Christian Science Monitor. April 18, 2002. (Nov. 14, 2008)