Mapping wolf dispersal

A Northern Rockies wolf was spotted at the Grand Canyon.


Update: In late November, DNA analysis of scat collected from the animal on the North Rim confirmed it to be a gray wolf from the Northern Rockies. The Fish and Wildlife Service estimates the animal traveled at least 450 miles to reach the Grand Canyon.  

In early October, an animal bearing an uncanny resemblance to a gray wolf was spotted on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Officials are still working to confirm whether the animal is a wolf, probably from the Northern Rockies, or a wolf-dog hybrid. Still, the mere possibility that a wolf from the north is exploring this place set the internet abuzz. The symbolism of the sighting is hard to top, writes journalist Emma Marris, who is working on a book about wild wolves: 

(T)his wolf has been spotted on the Kaibab Plateau, the very place where conservation hero Aldo Leopold worked to exterminate wolves in the 1920s. In his essay, “Thinking Like a Mountain,” included in 1949’s A Sand County Almanac, he wrote about the role wolves play in controlling deer numbers and thus staving off catastrophic population crashes when giant deer herds eat all the available vegetation. He also recounts shooting at a pack of wolves there (after all, as he writes, “In those days we never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf”). He killed one, and, in what is among the most famous passages of the book, he watched “a fierce green fire dying in her eyes.” Somehow, at that moment, he understood the ecological role of the wolf. Yet by the time his book came out, there were no more wolves on the Kaibab.

Wolves once roamed the U.S. from sea to shining sea. But on the Kaibab and elsewhere, humans shot and poisoned them into oblivion. In recent decades, reintroduction and conservation efforts in the Northern Rockies and Great Lakes have successfully revived gray wolf populations. And now, the carnivores are making inroads into other historic territories on their own, says Suzanne Stone of Defenders of Wildlife, who has worked on Northern Rockies wolf conservation for decades. "The wolves from the Northern Rockies used to be connected to the Mexican wolf population," which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently trying to reestablish in Arizona and New Mexico. "So this is a very natural process that was in place for thousands of years. It’s exciting to be able to see the potential for (connectivity) happening again." 

"Dispersal," or leaving one's pack to find a mate and establish new territory, helps maintain genetic diversity and tends to occur when wolves are in their "teenage years." Thanks to tools like radio and GPS collars and DNA analysis, we're increasingly able to piece together the epic treks canid explorers make into areas we previously vanquished them from. Some journeys attract massive amounts of attention, like that of OR7, the male wolf who, in 2011, became the first wild wolf to enter California in decades. Others go little noticed. 

Here at High Country News, we plotted a few notable wolf treks of late on a map, with lines that give a crude sense of the distance they've traveled. The animals, of course, don't follow straight lines from one place to the next; the plots are rough estimates of where they dispersed from and arrived. In the case of the Great Lakes population, which occupies northern Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, we used just one point to show the general region in which the core population lives. Click on the red markers for more info about specific wolves. 

Cally Carswell is a High Country News contributing editor based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She tweets @callycarswell.

Thumbnail photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.