Endangered wolves are back in America's national parks

It’s taken decades of work by conservationists, but gray wolf populations in America are the highest they’ve been in years – and nature lovers can spot them in their natural habitats at national parks around the country. 

North American Grey Wolves running in snow.
Gray wolves were seen as a nuisance and targeted for extermination in Yellowstone National Park from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. Image by Dennis W Donohue/Shutterstock

Reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho in the mid-1990s, gray wolves soon spread to states like Wyoming, Montana, Utah, and California, and today some 5600 can be found roaming the lower 48 states, per education-oriented advocacy group the International Wolf Center. That’s a 460% increase since the species first became protected under the Endangered Species Act in 1974 – an especially impressive rebound given that it was targeted for extermination by the government only a hundred or so years ago. 

Three Druid timber wolves on snow in Yellowstone
Relocation efforts returned gray wolves to Yellowstone in the mid-1990s. Image by milehightraveler/Getty Images

In March, the Department of the Interior’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed delisting the gray wolf and returning management to states and tribes, a move greeted with trepidation by conservationists, who say that wolves will now be hunted, and applause by farmers and ranchers, who say that the predators threaten their livestock. (The administration has since announced a plan that will weaken overall protections granted under the Endangered Species Act, making it easier to remove a species from the list and taking economic considerations into account for the first time ever. As the New York Times puts it,  "Overall, the new rules would very likely clear the way for new mining, oil and gas drilling, and development in areas where protected species live.") While the proposal to delist gray wolves is far from a done deal – both sides are sure to be fighting it out in court – now’s a good time to catch the animals in their natural habitats. 

Adult couple cycling on rural road, Mount McKinley, Denali National Park, Alaska, USA
As of 2014, biologists in Denali estimated the density of wolves in the park around 7.4 wolves per 1,000 sq miles or 2.9 wolves per 1000 sq km. Image by Seth K. Hughes/Getty Image

According to National Geographic and biologist Doug Smith, who heads up Yellowstone’s Wolf Restoration Project, several American conservation areas offer stellar wolf-watching—Yellowstone among them, naturally, but also Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park, Alaska’s Denali National Park & Preserve, and Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota’s Superior National Forest. 

Canoer on Cross Bay Lake in the Boundary Waters
Boundary Waters is best explored by boat. Image by Wildnerdpix/Shutterstock

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game places the number of wolves in the state between 7000 and 11,000, and with Denali biologists monitoring 13 packs containing some 50 wolves, the park is a good place to start. “In this remote Alaskan wilderness—at 6.1 million acres, one of the largest national parks in the U.S.– expect fewer people and more wolves,” writes Kitson Jazynka for National Geographic. “Drivers on the Denali Park Road frequently report sightings.” Smith recommends looking for clues like paw prints on the river banks, and bringing binoculars to get a closer look.  

Grand Tetons at sunrise
According to National Geographic, Grand Teton's Willow Flats is the best place in the park to see wolves. Image by Andrew Soundarajan/500px

Wildlife watchers visiting Yellowstone and Grand Teton will have the best luck with early-morning excursions in summer or midwinter. “In Yellowstone, look for packs living in the Lamar Valley, Hayden Valley, and Blacktail Deer Plateau. In Grand Teton, head to Willow Flats,” Jazynka reports. Winter is also the ideal time to see wolves in Boundary Waters, when you can track wolves via sled-dog excursion, but summer works as well, when you can explore by water and guided canoe trips.

For more information, see the full breakdown on nationalgeographic.com.