How gray wolves divided America


A gray wolf standing alone on a barren estuary.
A federal judge restored protections for gray wolves in much of the US. | Getty Images

Many people love wolves. How did saving them become so controversial?

After a 15-month break, the gray wolf is back on the endangered species list. That might sound like bad news, but it’s actually seen as a major victory for the iconic species, which is revered by Indigenous tribes and a powerful symbol of wildlife conservation.

The gray wolf gained the protections of “endangered” status in 1974 but lost them in 2020 when the Trump administration removed the animal from the list. The Biden administration defended the removal in court, but a federal judge overturned it on Thursday and restored protections for the species across much of the US. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and the Biden administration now have 60 days to decide whether or not to appeal.

Environmental groups applauded US District Judge Jeremy White’s ruling, which comes less than a year after hunters in Wisconsin killed more than 200 wolves in three days, exceeding the limit set by state officials. Lawmakers in Montana and Idaho have also passed a suite of bills that allow hunters to kill more wolves with tactics that conservation groups have called cruel. But White’s decision will not affect all of these populations: It only applies to wolves that live outside of the Northern Rockies (Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming) and New Mexico, where they were already protected.

But what is an endangered species, anyway? The answer is surprisingly complicated, said John Vucetich, a renowned wolf expert and professor at Michigan Technological University. Vucetich led one of the longest-running research projects of any animal, in Isle Royale National Park, a set of islands in Lake Superior. He told Vox that wolves deserve to be protected — but they’ve gotten caught up in the culture wars, which gave them the reputation as one of the nation’s most controversial species.

Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Sibling rivalries and food fights: Wolf packs are like human families

Benji Jones

What’s it like to get to know a wolf?

John Vucetich

Wolves live in families. We call them packs, but it is literally a family — typically a pair of parents and their offspring. Sometimes there’s an uncle or cousin or grandparent.

The nature of our fieldwork allows us to follow individual wolves from one day to the next. During our field season, which lasts about seven weeks, we get a really intimate view of what the wolves are doing and how they’re relating to one another. We get to know them as individuals. And all wolves are individuals.

If you think the dynamics within a human family or between human families are interesting and complicated — think of Romeo and Juliet or West Side Story — the same complexities occur within and between wolf packs. I’m not exaggerating. Sibling rivalries, parent-offspring conflicts, and then conflicts between families … it’s mostly focused on access to reproduction or food.


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Gray wolves in Montana.

Their lives are really difficult because of how difficult it is to get food. The lifespan of a wolf is about 12 years, but in the wild, it’s about four. The most common causes of death are starvation and wolves killing one another, and when they’re killing one another, they’re typically fighting over food.

When is an animal endangered?

Benji Jones

Gray wolves received federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. Then wolves in most states lost protection under the Trump administration. This new ruling restores those protections. How did we get here?

John Vucetich

The big picture is pretty simple. We, as an American people and the Fish and Wildlife Service, haven’t figured out what it means for a species to be endangered or not. And if you don’t understand what it means to be endangered, then you can’t reliably rule whether particular species like wolves are endangered or not.

We know, very clearly, that gray squirrels and rabbits are not endangered. We know that tigers are endangered. The question is really about where the boundary lies.

That’s what was at stake in the court case — and that’s what’s at stake with any future decisions about wolves. In a very narrow sense, wolves are re-listed because of a judge’s decision. That’s because a few environmental organizations sued to restore the protections.

Benji Jones

How do we still not know where to draw that line? The Endangered Species Act has been around for nearly half a century.

John Vucetich

From one perspective, it’s absolutely baffling. When the Endangered Species Act was created in 1973, among the first things it did was list species that had already been considered endangered for a long time. It just created a category for them. Many of these species were in such a dire condition that there wasn’t really a need to know where the line was.

Benji Jones

How do you understand the question of what makes a species endangered? And where do wolves fit in?

John Vucetich

In the last couple of hundred years, in particular, humans have not done well by quite a few species. So, the question is: When have we done enough harm to say, “That’s enough, and corrective action is required”?


Courtesy of R. Peterson
John Vucetich, a renowned wolf expert and biology professor at Michigan Technological University.

The slightly more technical aspect here involves a debate about the legal definition of an endangered species. It is, verbatim, “a species that is at risk of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.” It’s this phrase that has really captured a lot of attention.

Over the past 15 to 20 years, the Fish and Wildlife Service has made decisions that hinge on its interpretation of that definition. And this lawsuit’s concern was basically that the FWS hasn’t yet answered the question: What is an endangered species? This court decision reinforces the need for that.

Benji Jones

Do you think that the gray wolf is still at risk of extinction?

John Vucetich

Wolves absolutely do not fit the definition of a recovered species. Wolves, unquestionably, are to be considered legally endangered.

There are a lot of wolves in the world, and a good number of them are in the Lower 48. But a species isn’t considered endangered only if it’s at imminent risk of extinction. It’s about when have humans done enough damage to a species that corrective action is required.

Go back to that legal definition — that language, “throughout all or a significant portion of its range.” It’s the basis for asking the question: How much damage is too much? In the Lower 48, wolves currently occupy about 15 percent of their historic range. It’s really hard to imagine that you could lose 85 percent of the species’ range and say, “That’s no big deal.”

How gray wolves divided America

Benji Jones

It seems like few animals are as controversial as gray wolves in the US these days. How did they become so politicized?

John Vucetich

If you look at sociological data, wolves are not controversial. The Endangered Species Act is also not at all controversial. Even people who self-identify as Republicans or politically conservative have really strong, positive views about the Act.

The controversy does not come from constituents. It comes from special interest groups leaning hard on members of Congress. One would be gun rights advocates. They’ve decided that wolf recovery is a bad idea. Land rights advocates, too, have tended to take a strong position against the Act, more so than wolves alone. Farmers and ranchers also have a strong lobbying group.

Benji Jones

Why are these groups so against wolves?

John Vucetich

The intensity and the vitriol doesn’t match anyone’s real-world experience of what wolves actually do. Wolves have long been symbols for all that’s good — and all that’s evil — in the world.

I think they may have been co-opted into the culture wars. The boundaries don’t always make sense — what do abortion, immigration, climate change, and wolves have in common? There’s also the so-called rural-urban divide. Rural people have a tendency to be less supportive of wolves, which maps onto some elements of the culture wars as well.


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An injured moose in Isle Royale National Park wearing a radio collar.

Benji Jones

What has working with wolves taught you about saving species?

John Vucetich

My greatest understanding of humans is through and about wolves. Some people love them and some people hate them, and my greatest interest is to understand why we are the way we are. But I’ve learned that no matter what side you’re on, we have a deep inability to explain ourselves to each other.

Benji Jones

Has that made you rethink the larger goals of nature conservation?

John Vucetich

Without a doubt. There are two big shortcomings in conservation, and one is that not even conservation professionals agree about what it means to conserve nature.

Some people are interested in conservation for its own sake: There are species out there that we’ve done poorly by and we should conserve them no matter what value they are to humans, even if it means impairing human value. In contrast, there are people who believe we need to conserve nature because our well-being depends on it.

Other people want to conserve nature but don’t want to harm any individual animals to get there. This becomes important when it comes to invasive species. A lot of invasive species management is about killing them. There’s no agreement about what conservation means and what ultimately motivates it.

Benji Jones

Is there a “right” reason to conserve nature? Where do you fall?

John Vucetich

I haven’t decided. If you are inflexible and say human well-being should always trump conservation, the future is very bleak for biodiversity. Whereas if conservation should always trump human well-being, there’s an extraordinarily bleak future for human well-being.

Benji Jones

If wolves recover across their historic range, there will likely be even more backlash. How do we learn to live with these predators?

John Vucetich

Most people don’t have to do anything. Even if you live in wolf country, you’re not likely to see one or be directly impacted by one. And if you are among the few people who do have a chance of encountering them, either through livestock depredation or through the loss of a pet, you just have to know a few things.

There’s extremely good advice for how to take care of your pets, such as keeping your dog on a leash. There are also lots of husbandry practices that are known to reduce the risk of losing livestock. You can’t make it zero in all cases. We just have to decide to create systems that compensate farmers in a reasonable way.

We live on a very crowded planet. That crowding creates conflicts between humans, and between humans and biodiversity. We have to learn how to coexist and give up some of the things that we want so that other people can get by.