Are Wolves Endangered? Conservation Status and Threats

Gray wolves aren't the only ones facing obstacles

There are believed to be just 20 red wolves left in the wild.
There are believed to be just 20 red wolves left in the wild. Mark Newman / Getty Images

Unique wolf species are found in all corners of the Earth. The critically endangered red wolf has decreasing populations, with only between 20 and 30 individuals in the U.S., while the endangered Ethiopian wolf is believed to number just under 200 in the remote highlands of Ethiopia. The most abundant wolf species, the gray wolf, lost its protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in late 2020 and is now believed to have a stable population of 6,000 throughout the lower 48 U.S. states (and over 200,000 individuals worldwide). While the gray wolf species is currently listed as “Least Concern” by the IUCN, the dwindling Mexican wolf subpopulation in the southwest is still protected under the ESA.

Federal Protections

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced the removal of the gray wolf (also known as the “grey” wolf) from the ESA in March 2019, citing the overall population's health in all nine extant states. The species had spent 45 years on the list, and the two primary populations greatly exceeded recovery goals among the Northern Rocky Mountains and Western Great Lakes. According to the announcement, state and tribal wildlife management agencies would assume responsibility for the sustainable management and protection of gray wolves, but FWS would continue to monitor the species for the next five years. The Mexican wolf, a subspecies of the gray wolf, would remain on the ESA due to its small range — condensed to Arizona and New Mexico — and low numbers.

Certain conservationists and scientists didn’t necessarily see it this way, however, highlighting the fact that the revival of one or two populations may not be sufficient to declare an entire species recovered. A 2021 study published in the journal BioScience suggested that the revisions to the ESA in 2019 allowed for a narrower view of what constitutes the “recovery” of widely distributed species in terms of range, as it focuses on stronger population numbers and discounts weak ones.

While the Great Lakes region accounts for two-thirds of the entire U.S. gray wolf population, it still only occupies 3 out of the 17 states with substantial habitat in the wolves’ historical range. The proposal of a separate species called the eastern wolf in the Great Lakes region poised a similar argument. Scientists continue to disagree on whether the eastern wolf constitutes its own species, a gray wolf subspecies, or a wolf-coyote hybrid. Since the ESA makes it illegal to kill a protected species in most cases, many wolf advocates believe the removal will hinder wolf recovery throughout the rest of the country.

The red wolf, known as the world’s most endangered wolf species, is found only in eastern North Carolina and is currently listed as an endangered species under the ESA. According to the FWS, there are only about 20 wild red wolves left in their native habitats and 245 maintained in captive breeding facilities.

The Mexican wolf subspecies teetered on the edge of extinction through the 1800s and mid-1900s due to hunting. The subspecies gained protection under the ESA in 1976, and in 1998, wolf recovery strategies began in the United States. By 2018, the population of endangered Mexican wolves had grown from 32 to 131, and by 2019, the FWS announced a 24% increase to 163 individuals divided almost evenly between Arizona and New Mexico.

The Mexican wolf is a critically endangered subspecies of gray wolf.
The Mexican wolf is a critically endangered subspecies of gray wolf. Mark Newman / Getty Images


Wolves are apex predators, so they are rarely threatened by other species in their natural environments. It isn’t uncommon for wolves to kill one another over territory disputes, but generally, the majority of wolf mortalities come at the hands of humans. Disease, prey depletion, and habitat loss contribute to a portion of threats, as well.

Human Intolerance

The long history between wolves and humans is steeped in misrepresentation. Wolves are typically presented as villainous or dangerous; we are taught to fear them even in the fairy tales we grew up hearing as children. Although unprovoked attacks against humans are rare, wolves pose a danger to livestock and domestic animals, especially in areas where their usual prey has become scarce. Even as we come to understand more about wolves and attitudes toward the animals change, wolf management and conservation remain controversial.

In areas where wolf populations overlap with agriculture, wolves are culled to reduce potential conflicts between wolves and livestock. In the Yukon, lethal wolf control efforts can reduce populations by up to 80% in the wintertime. Though populations have been known to rebound within four to five years, recovery is largely due to outside wolves coming in from neighboring areas in search of new habitats.

Habitat Loss

Human encroachment into wolf habitats leads to fragmentation and conflicts from vehicle collision as wolves are forced to cross roads and railways. Similarly, as agricultural land expands, farmers are more likely to kill wolves to protect their livestock.

A wide habitat range is especially important for gray wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains, who are over 11 times more likely to reproduce after forming new packs than when they stay in existing packs. Surrounding pack density has a negative effect on the formation of new packs, so when wolves are given the chance to distribute or spread over a wider area, opportunities for successful reproduction grow.

A group of gray wolves in Yellowstone National Park, Montana.
A group of gray wolves in Yellowstone National Park, Montana. Jason Maehl / Getty Images

Loss of Prey Sources

Some researchers propose wolf culling as a means to protect populations of prey mammals; however, studies have found that wolves in southern Europe prey more on ungulates (hoofed mammals) in areas where wild prey is at higher densities than livestock. This suggests that the reintroduction of certain wild ungulate species would prove a successful conservation method to keep wolves from being hunted.

The endangered Ethiopian wolf, a species currently confined to seven isolated mountain ranges in the Ethiopian highlands, has at least 40% of its prey classified as threatened by the IUCN.


Disease affects wolf populations in the wild less than in captivity, threatening recovery efforts for species like the red wolf, whose captive populations outnumber those in the wild more than 12:1. A survey of captive red wolves from 1996 to 2012 found that out of 259 deceased wolves, the greatest cause of death was cancerous growths, while the second was gastrointestinal disease.

Rabies and canine distemper virus (CDV) are both large issues for endangered Ethiopian wolves. In 2010, a massive CVD outbreak occurred just 20 months after a rabies outbreak in Bale Mountains National Park in southeastern Ethiopia, where the world’s largest population of Ethiopian wolves lives. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention compared populations from 2005-2006 and 2010 to find that death rates range between 43% and 68% in affected wolves, giving the population little chance of recovery.

An Ethiopian wolf and cub in Bale Mountains National Park, Ethiopia.
An Ethiopian wolf and cub in Bale Mountains National Park, Ethiopia. Anup Shah / Getty Images

What We Can Do

Wolves help maintain the overall health of prey species by targeting weak animals and reducing heavy prey animal populations, allowing for more diversity and abundance of plant species. Wolves can even have economic benefits to their occupied areas; the presence of wolves in Yellowstone National Park increased ecotourism spending by $35.5 million in 2005.

Wolf reintroduction can have a cascading effect on entire ecosystems. The 1995 reintroduction project in Yellowstone led to important indirect interactions between wolves, elk, and plant species (specifically aspen, cottonwood, and willow trees). Animal browsing on the five tallest young aspens in portions of the northern range decreased from 100% in 1998 to under 25% by 2010. Trees grew taller and populations of species like bison and beaver who rely on woody plants and herbaceous forage increased. 

Continuing scientific research is necessary to understand the interactions between wolves and people to influence future conservation efforts. As management responsibilities for gray wolves in the U.S. move from the ESA to local and state officials, it's important to contact your local representatives to voice your support for wolves, especially if you live in states like Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Washington, and Oregon.

Individuals can help wolves by supporting organizations that preserve wildlands and by keeping an open mind about wolf management. Coexistence between humans (especially those who care for livestock) and wolves is key to their survival.

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