Gray wolves — canis lupus — used to dominate the entire continental U.S., with a population upwards of two million wolves.
However, by the 1930s, gray wolves were effectively extinct from the lower 48 states as a result of human activity. While indigenous people revered and respected wolves, European settlers feared and demonized wolves, blaming them for attacking their livestock. As European society pushed west, targeted killings, federal extermination programs and conflicts with settlers destroyed wolf populations across the nation.
The loss of the gray wolves wreaked havoc on ecosystems across the U.S., most notably in Yellowstone National Park. No longer controlled by wolves, elk populations exploded and decimated local plant species, which had unintended consequences for beavers and bears.
Fast forward to the Endangered Species Act of 1973, one of many protection acts that came out of the 1970s environmental movement. The Endangered Species Act created the framework for federal conservation programs across the U.S., changing everything for gray wolf conservation.
In 1987, the National Park Service proposed a plan to reintroduce wolves to Yellowstone National Park. In 1991, Congress appropriated funds for the project and in January 1995, 14 wolves from Canada were introduced to Yellowstone.
The wolf reintroduction program was a success: There are currently between four to seven packs in Yellowstone, with a total of 1,766 wolves in the entire Northern Rocky Mountain region. What’s particularly exciting is that slowly but surely, wolves are naturally recovering parts of their original distribution. As of March, there are 126 wolves in Washington, 137 in Oregon and there have been sightings in California. Currently, they occupy about 10% of their original range in the continental U.S. and two-thirds of their original range worldwide, and scientists intend to help make these numbers grow.
The gray wolves’ story shows that creating effective conservation policy is entirely possible. After 46 years of the Endangered Species Act, 55 of the originally listed species have recovered their populations, including sea otters, bald eagles and the black footed ferret; many (including the gray wolf) are no longer listed as endangered.
These results are reflected globally as well. In 2018, Nepal nearly doubled its wild tiger population and mountain gorilla populations grew worldwide thanks to conservation efforts. Have there been challenges? Of course. Just last month, Trump announced he was rolling back protections on the Endangered Species Act.
Now I know you may be thinking that this is a column that’s supposed to be about good news, and you’re telling me Trump is messing with the Endangered Species Act?
It’s not great, but it’s also not permanent: With the right people in office, we can redouble our efforts to ensure that effective policies stay in place. What gives me hope — despite Trump — is the fact that we know solutions like the Endangered Species Act actually do work, and that while the system definitely has problems, it’s not entirely flawed when it comes to conservation. We can take back the federal government (2020 let’s go) and use it as one of our weapons to fight to keep our planet alive.