Wolves play a key role in keeping ecosystems healthy. They help keep deer and elk populations in check, which can benefit many other plant and animal species. The carcasses of their prey also help to redistribute nutrients and provide food for other wildlife species, like grizzly bears and scavengers. Wolves are a critical keystone species in a healthy ecosystem. A keystone species is often, but not always, a predator – like the wolf. Outnumbered greatly by their prey, predators can control the distribution, population, and behavior of large numbers of prey species.
Gray wolves are social animals, and form packs of up to 12 members, usually consisting of a nuclear family. Wolf packs contain a dominant, or “Alpha” male and female, their offspring, and other wolves not related to the dominant pair. All of the wolves have a rank that determines their roles and hierarchy in the pack. Wolves are well known for their distinct sound: the howl. This unique noise can travel for several miles. Wolves howl for a number of reasons, including communication with other packs and with their own pack over long distances, to gather a pack for a hunt, to warn off intruders, or to attract mates.
Although wolf packs once roamed from the Arctic tundra to Mexico, loss of habitat and extermination programs led to their demise throughout most of the United States by early in the 1900s. In 1973, the US Fish and Wildlife Service listed the northern Rocky Mountain wolf (Canis lupus) as an endangered species and designated Greater Yellowstone as one of three recovery areas. From 1995 to 1997, 41 wild wolves from Canada and northwest Montana were released in Yellowstone National Park.
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