Top Ten Wildlife Areas We Love (and Would Hate to Lose)

Gray Wolf
  |  Gorp.com
Gray Wolf
The gray wolf in full flight (Corel)

Why We Love It:

A member of the canine family, the gray wolf is one of North America's supreme hunters. A wolf's territory can range up to 100 square miles while hunting big game like elk, deer, moose, and caribou. These wild dogs have 42 adult teeth (humans have 36), and can reach speeds of up to 35 miles per hour while tracking down prey. Though wolves can survive on two-and-a-half pounds of food per day, they have been known to eat as much as 22 pounds in one sitting.

Where It's Happiest:

Wolves live in tight-knit packs, consisting of a breeding pair and their offspring. Packs hunt together, seeking out injured, sick, very young, or very old prey. They will also attack healthy animals, especially if they don't stand their ground and try to run. Despite popular notions, wolves don't live in dens or caves, except when birthing, choosing rather to bury themselves in the snow for insulation when the weather turns bad. Amazingly versatile, wolves have the broadest distribution of any terrestrial mammal, roaming to where prey and habitat are most plentiful.

The Cold, Hard Numbers:

Gray wolves once ranged over most of North America, but now are limited to Alaska, Idaho, Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, Wyoming, Montana, and Canada. Today, an estimated 2,700 wolves exist in the lower 48 states, with 6,000 to 8,000 in Alaska. The highest population in the world, some 57,000, are thought to exist throughout Canada, where habitat destruction has been less severe and hunting is restricted.

Who's to Blame:

Overhunting and habitat destruction, most resulting from ranching and agricultural, led to the wolf's demise. At the turn of the 20th century, the U.S. government led an aggressive—and largely successful—war on the predators. In 1926, the last gray wolf in Yellowstone National Park was shot by forest rangers; it was only with the 1995 transplant of 14 Canadian wolves to the park that the animal started to regain some of its original stature in the lower 48. With wolf populations actually growing stronger in certain U.S. states, the government is currently considering removing them from the Endangered Species List, a move that could spur states like Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho to implement "management policies" that open hunting season on wolves again.

When It's Gone:

In pristine ecosystems, wolves are the primary control of deer, moose, and elk populations. Scientists believe a single wolf eats 15 to 20 adult deer per year. Eliminating them could lead to an explosion in the deer population, followed by collapse. For example, eliminating the approximately 2,500 wolves in Minnesota could leave an extra 36,000 deer in an ecosystem with limited plants for grazing. Without enough food to sustain the population, deer numbers would plummet in subsequent years.

Signs of Life:

Though Western hunters and ranchers seem eager to put wolves back in their gun sights, efforts continue both to block the delisting and reintroduce wolves to some northeastern states. From the 31 animals reintroduced to Yellowstone between 1995 and 1996, today 174 wolves inhabit the entire park, with an additional 132 in the surrounding national forest. "Politics and poaching continue to be a problem," says Yellowstone Wolf Project leader Doug Smith. "The wolves are doing extremely well, though, and we believe there is a positive impact on the ecosystem at large." There are rumors of wolves, who can stray as far as 500 miles from their territory, coming back to Maine via Canada, but a confirmed sighting has yet to be made.

GOING, GOING, GONE?

The Florida panther is the United States' most critically endangered animal, with an estimated 60 to 80 animals left in the wild. In the mid-1990s, the panther's population had dwindled to less than 50, and the threat of in-breeding was as big a threat to the gene pool as was the critical loss of habitat (the state having lost more than a third of its forest covering, the panther's prime habitat, to residential and agricultural development since the 1940s), collisions with vehicles (44 animals killed in collisions since 1972), and a dearth of suitable prey (the panther feeds on white-tailed deer, raccoons, armadillos, rabbits, birds, and the occasional alligator).

A 1995 re-introduction program saw eight female Texas cougars, a close cousin of the panther, released into the Florida wilds to try strengthen the gene pool and encourage breeding. Almost a decade later, the population has shown a slight recovery in terms of numbers, but the panther is still clinging to its very existence in a slim wilderness enclave that shrinks in inverse proportion to Florida's burgeoning suburban growth.

LEARN MORE ABOUT THE FLORIDA PANTHER:

National Wildlife Federation's Panther Factfile

Florida State's PantherNet


Published: 18 Mar 2004 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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