From Jack London’s 1903 classic The Call of the Wild to Kevin Costner’s 1990 Dances with Wolves, America has always had a fascination with wolves. Unfortunately, much of this fascination has historically been negative, with the result that the wolf was almost driven to extinction in North America.
Wolves at one point could be seen ranging from the Arctic north all the way south into Mexico and from the Pacific to the Atlantic. However, in the late 1800s, Americans began waging war against wolf populations, led by the US government. Even confirmed environmentalist Teddy Roosevelt called for the elimination of the wolf.
Backed by government-sponsored bounties, the wolf was hunted relentlessly and systematically eradicated from most of its range. By 1960 it was virtually extinct in the US, with the population down to about 300 living in the far northern forests of Minnesota and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
The wolf was designated an endangered species by the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1973, and plans to reintroduce the wolf to the wild were initiated. However, strong opposition from farming and herding groups resulting in multiple lawsuits delayed the project.
Finally, between 1995 and 1997, about 40 wild wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park. Relentless opposition resulted in several of the breeding pack being illegally shot or killed as the wolves expanded their territory outside the protection of Yellowstone, but the program ultimately was successful. Currently, there are more than 300 wolves in the Yellowstone area and over 6,000 living in the wild in mainland US.
Wolves are a pack animal – typically together in groups of eight to twelve, with pack size varying based on food availability. Each pack has a distinct social structure with alpha males and females as leaders and other wolves in subordinate roles to the leaders.
Even now, however, the number one enemy of wolf reintroduction is people. We now know the role wolves can play in a well-developed and functioning ecosystem, yet the complexities of these facts are lost on many, which leads this discussion on to the role of the wolf sanctuary.
One such sanctuary is Predators of the Heart, located on Fidalgo Island, just outside the city limits of Anacortes, Washington. On their 10-acre property, the owner, Dave Coleburn, provides a home for not only wolves but also cougars, bobcats, lynx, and various other animals who for a variety of reasons cannot be reintroduced into the wild.
Often, the animals were originally purchased as pets by people who were ill-prepared to raise a wild or exotic animal. The sanctuary is the largest “traveling exhibit” of wild animals in the Northwest.
Several of the residents of Predators of the Heart act as “animal ambassadors”, visiting schools and attending public events to educate people, particularly children, about the creatures and to foster appreciation and respect for the interconnection of nature.
Another special thing about this sanctuary is that it offers an interactive “Wolf Encounter”. For $200, visitors can book an experience through Airbnb which allows adults (no children) to hike for two hours through the compound accompanied by two of the resident wolves, Max and Kakoa.
Active since 1998, the non-profit sanctuary boasts one of the largest wolf packs in the Pacific Northwest. Predators of the Heart survived a series of legal challenges from their neighbors and the surrounding county and is still able to carry on its mission, licensed by the USDA.
Wolf sanctuaries exist throughout the US and Canada. At last count, there were 17 sanctuaries in 13 different states. Like Predators of the Heart, the primary purpose of these sanctuaries is education of the general public about wolves and protecting the wolves from the threat of humans – both to the wolves themselves and to their habitats.
While few of these shelters offer the hands-on opportunity of Predators of the Heart, many do have escorted tours to allow people the opportunity to view wolves in their native environment.
Many sanctuaries have established programs to return sick or injured wolves to the wild or to keep them within the sanctuary as breeding stock to help with reintroduction efforts.
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While it appears the immediate threat to the wolf is over, vigilance is still required. The many sanctuaries in the US will help increase public awareness and education about wolves to ensure that they continue to spread and flourish in the US and Canada.