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Saving a Species: Wolves

28 minutes

(Describer) Logos are shown for Sea World and Busch Gardens.

They were of the most successful species... ...with intelligence and adaptability putting them atop the food chain. Their descendants became man's best friends. But we need to share space, or else... ...our ecosystem might never recover. Let's see wolves in a new light on this edition of "Saving a Species."

(Describer) In an animation, different animals are shown: turtles, a penguin, a tiger, the eye of an elephant, a dolphin, a whale, and a wolf. Title: Saving a Species: Wolves.

Welcome to "Saving a Species." I'm Bill Street. We're going to challenge you to question things you think you know about wolves. Why the challenge? With so few wolves in the wild and so many humans impacting wolf territory, improving our knowledge of these amazing animals is critical to their survival. Not understanding wolves can lead to all kinds of unintended outcomes. Megan Glass here in Williamsburg, Virginia. Stick with me. We're about to cover a lot of territory.

(Describer) In a car....

Imagine you're driving down a forest road. You see a puppy along the side of the road, like a German Shepherd.

(all) Aww! The puppy's been abandoned, and you're not some cold-hearted monster, are you? You stop, catch the pup, then take him to the vet. The vet tells you-- That's not a puppy. It's not? It's a wolf pup. I'm sure the vet's made a mistake and everything--oh wait, they had it DNA tested. It's a wolf pup. True story. Happened here, just outside of Ketchum, Idaho. This was not an ideal situation. The folks meant well, but let's see what happens next. The conservation group, The Defenders of Wildlife, stepped in. They determined the pup was a gray wolf. They worked with

(Describer) Jay Tacey:

the Idaho Department of Fish and Game to locate the pup's pack, intending a return to the wild. Unfortunately, that didn't happen. All the preferred options are off the table. The best outcome is make the most of bad circumstances.

(Describer) Tacey:

They moved the wolf from Ketchum to Boise for Zoo Boise's experience in handling wolves. The vet team determined he was thin and anemic, because he was eating the wrong diet. Zoo Boise got him a proper diet, restoring his health. The pup needed a permanent home, bringing us back to Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Virginia. By coincidence, the park's wolf habitat was acquiring new pups.

(Describer) Tacey:

Bringing in a wild wolf was not part of our plan. Since we had two on the way, everything was ready. We hoped bringing him in with the others, he might regard them as pack mates, and that bonding will ease his transition and allow for much less stress. How did it work out? We'll have the rest later, but I'll give you one hint. You see that wolf over there? His name is Boise.

(Describer) Street:

The story of the wolf now known as Boise is not your typical wolf tale. Wolves stay as far away as they can from humans, leaving their behavior and whereabouts as something of a mystery. Storytellers have filled that void of knowledge with all kinds of fantastic legends. Now Chuck Cureau is here to debunk myths and introduce you to the amazing truth about wolves.

(Describer) Chuck Cureau:

Kids, let's gather 'round the fire while I read to you stories from "The Completely Unfair and Grossly Over-Exaggerated Book of Unlikable Wolves."

(Describer) He smiles.

Okay, let's see. Ooh, the story of the three little pigs. "I'll huff, and I'll puff, and I'll blow your house down." Forget about all that. Houses made of straw are never gonna sell in the current housing market. Here's another one of my favorites, "Little Red Riding Hood." Don't go in there, Little Red!

(Describer) A wolf is dressed in Grandma's clothes.

That grandmother of yours needs a shave. And check this out. Here's another reason to hate on wolves: the werewolf.


(Describer) It stands like a person under a full moon.

I guess this is when regular wolves just aren't big and bad enough. Wolves have gotten a bad rap over the years and we need to set the record straight.

(Describer) He shuts the book.

A few hundred years ago, wolves were one of the most successful species on the planet. Almost every continent had its own subspecies. In North America alone, wolves numbered in the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions. However, as humans grew in number, wolves declined. Perceived as a threat to be hunted and eradicated, many wolf populations shrank to near extinction. Today, we know wolves are a vital part of a healthy ecosystem. Our improved understanding of what makes a wolf a wolf is equally vital. To get a handle on wolves, let's start with something we know and understand. Believe it or not, all dogs are descendants of wolves. Yes, even this one. Let's start with what we know. Just like dogs, wolves are smart. When it comes to surviving the wild, wolves have kept skills that domestic dogs have lost over time. Sorry, Spike, you were born to be mild.

(Describer) Laura Westra:

Dogs have been selectively bred for tasks humans wanted them for, such as hunting or guarding. They don't have to use the thinking power of a wolf 'cause they don't perform the tasks of a wild wolf.

(Describer) Cureau:

Then there are the physical differences. This guy is very different from his wolf cousins in a variety of ways, but what about bigger dogs like German Shepherds or Huskies?

(Describer) A dog plays in a yard. Westra:

They are similar, but there are major attributes that set them apart. Wolves have stronger jaws, longer legs, and more strength and stamina.

(Describer) Cureau:

Think of what we expect from domestic dogs-- a little game of catch, some Frisbee. Ooh, I got it!

(Describer) He jumps to catch a frisbee.

But there's a difference between landing this and landing an elk.

(Describer) He wears boxing gloves and punches.

If I'm a wolf, I need to keep my edge. I need the extra power. I need endurance. Why? It's simple; the things I like to eat are always on the move.

(Describer) At a table, a model of an elk on a plate moves around, dodging Chuck:

And none--and none-- and none--and none of them seem to wanna join me for dinner.

(Describer) He watches the model slowly move away, and picks up a knife and fork, but the model jerks back.

This is where the wolf's intelligence and physical attributes come into play. Smell is the wolf's most powerful sense, with a nose that can detect prey from far distances. And did you notice those triangular ears? They allow wolves to hear frequencies far beyond what we humans experience. Once on the move, the wolf's intellect and hunting skills kick in, all supported by a powerful torso and legs, allowing speedy pursuit of prey over long distances.

(Describer) Lying on the ground...

To put things into perspective, we have to start at ground level. Herbivores feast on grass and other plants. Those herbivores might fall prey to carnivores other than wolves. Wolves sit at the top of the food web-- an apex predator-- with 42 teeth and a jaw capable of cutting through muscle and bone using 1,500 pounds of pressure. This nutcracker only uses a small fraction of that.

(Describer) He cracks a nut.

Eeek. Okay, just to recap, apex predator and this guy.

(Describer) A fluffy dog.

The difference between wolves and dogs doesn't stop with survival in the wild. It's also about social survival. Domestic dogs need to live peacefully with humans. To make this work, dogs have to be submissive. It's like they've adapted a permanent state of puppyhood. Isn't that right?

(Describer) The puppy he holds licks his face.

See what I mean?

(Laura Westra) An alpha has a lot of jobs: hunt prey, choose den sites, and protect the pack's territory. To do this, they must be aggressive. That's the opposite of our domestic dogs.

(Describer) Chuck:

But there are some behavioral similarities. Both dogs and wolves are hyper-social.

(Laura) Dogs bond with other dogs and human owners for companionship, and this forms a pack, with humans as alpha members.

(Describer) Westra:

Wolves stick to very close-knit family units. That's usually a breeding male and female that serve as the alpha pair, younger siblings, and the average pack size ranges from five to seven wolves. And since dogs need humans and wolves don't, we know that wolves just aren't suitable as pets. They're too wild and independent to adjust to being pets. Isn't that right? In the wild, the fact that they don't need humans actually works in everyone's favor. Wolves go to great lengths to avoid people. Which means all those big bad wolf stories really are fairy tales. There are very few documented cases of wolves attacking humans. Instead, they have success with their natural prey and are just amazing animals all the way around. Speaking of amazing, check this out. Spike, roll over.

(Describer) A skinny little dog just looks up at him. Spike walks away.

Roll over. It worked in rehearsal. Spike?

(Describer) Street:

As Chuck just demonstrated, wolves have rarely been a direct threat to humans. However, in the past few hundred years, the perceived threat of wolves led to mass extermination of wolves in certain areas.

[distant rifle fire]

The good news: once-threatened gray wolves are slowly making a comeback in some areas of the United States.

(Describer) in the north, Arizona, New Mexico and North Carolina.

The bad news: other wolf subspecies, like the Mexican gray in the Southwest, are still dangerously close to extinction. Thanks to funding from the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens Conservation Fund, the coordinated effort of several wildlife agencies, plus the help of conservation groups such as the Endangered Wolf Center and Defenders of Wildlife, efforts are underway which could restore ecological balance in an area where these wolves used to rule.

(Describer) Title: Albuquerque, New Mexico. 4am.

The sun won't be up for another two hours. The day's success depends on an early start.

(Describer) Susan Dicks:

The goal of today is to capture a male and a female; the female is pregnant. To explain what's at stake, the wolves we're talking about

(Describer) Jon Joyce:

are extremely rare Mexican grays. The plan is transfer them both from their location at the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico, then transport them more than 220 miles to their new home, Arizona's Apache National Forest. Mexican gray wolves are critically endangered.

(Describer) Regina Mossotti:

Releases like this are vital to maintaining the health of the population in the wild, not only getting the numbers up, but keeping the genetics healthy by introducing new genetics back out.

(Describer) A line of trucks heads down a road.

(Jon Joyce) After entering the Sevilleta Refuge, the team prepares for the task. It's important everyone knows their part, otherwise there's a risk of injury to wolf or human.

(Describer) Dicks:

These animals are not used to people coming and going. A large group coming in is gonna cause the animals to start running, and it's stressful for them.

(Jon) The plan: enter the wolf enclosure and form a human wall, guiding the female and male into separate den boxes. The next time she turns around, we'll go ahead and take, like, ten more steps forward.

(Describer) A dozen people walk.

(Jon) The process is never easy, but this time, it all goes as planned.

(female) Okay, great.

(Describer) A wolf goes into a big box, and a man runs to close it.

(Jon) With the female wolf safely captured, the team confirms the pregnancy to be on course.

(Susan Dicks) She has plucked her belly hair ahead of whelping; that's to help the puppies find the nipples to nurse. It's a sign that she will be whelping.

(Describer) Dicks:

It's a good sign--it's biology telling her to get ready.

(Describer) Joyce:

The pregnancy is critical. Once those wolf pups arrive, they won't be as mobile as adult wolves. The male and female will stay anchored to the territory, increasing the chances for a successful, permanent relocation.

(Susan) It's so hard to do: insert wolf in crate. Without a doubt, one of the harder things.

(Jon) It's time for a five-hour drive through the open range of New Mexico and Arizona, and then arrival at their new home, the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area.

(Describer) The trucks run on a dirt road, and the crates are unloaded. They're carried to a large fenced enclosure. They're released.

(Susan) It's a very happy day, and they're one step closer to being the wild.

(Jon) It's cause for celebration, but the work is far from over.

(Describer) Chris Bagnoli:

We put these wolves here to replace wolves that unfortunately were illegally shot in the area. We wanna keep our wolf population healthy and have opportunities for this population to grow and be managed responsibly. To be sure, not everyone supports wolf reintroduction. Historically, wolves have been treated as a threat and dealt with in the harshest way.

(Describer) Maggie Dwire:

I think what's at stake is righting a wrong. The federal government, local, state governments, spent a lot of time getting rid of predators. There was a very successful anti-predator campaign in the late 1800s that caused, you know, the demise of the wolf.

(Jon) Even today, with only 75 known Mexican wolves living in the wild, some view them as an unwelcome threat to livestock. Groups opposed to wolf reintroduction maintain it's not possible to have wolves around without resulting harm to livestock or to humans.

(Describer) The wolves walk around the enclosure. Virginia Busch:

(Virginia Busch) We have to learn to coexist, and there's a few things that can be done in terms of education and pro-wolf activities that will help the rancher live in harmony with them, but it's a cultural change. Scientists have been working for several years now

(Describer) Mossotti:

on developing pro-wolf ranching methods, to work with ranchers on how to exist in harmony with not only wolves, but other predators.

(Virginia) Wolves are a keystone species.

(Describer) Busch:

They keep our ecosystem healthy. We learned that at Yellowstone. For over 100 years, they didn't exist there, and we saw so much happening with overpopulation of elk and other species coming in and taking that particular niche. When they were reintroduced back into the wild, the population started equalizing. We're seeing that in New Mexico and Arizona.

(Jon) As for these recent transfers, things look good. Both wolves are calm and adjusting to their new location.

(Describer) Dwire:

We give them time, we let them get used to the area by being in the pen for weeks. She'll have pups in the next seven to ten days.

(Jon) The plan is to open the gates and let the wolves step into the wild at their own pace.

(Describer) Dwire:

We'll continue feeding them until we document their ability to kill elk and slowly reduce, you know, their need for us and increase their survival on their own.

(Describer) Titles: In the weeks to come, the newborn wolf pups did not survive and the relocation was deemed unsuccessful. The male and female are back at the Sevilleta preserve, ready for another possible relocation attempt at some point in the future. The exercise did reveal the presence of a male wolf from the old Rim Pack accompanied by a previously unknown female wolf. This could be a positive sign that the Rim Pack is set for a comeback.

In the weeks to come, the newborn wolf pups did not survive and the relocation was deemed unsuccessful. The male and female are back at the Sevilleta preserve, ready for another possible relocation attempt at some point in the future. The exercise did reveal the presence of a male wolf from the old Rim Pack accompanied by a previously unknown female wolf. This could be a positive sign that the Rim Pack is set for a comeback.

(Describer) Street:

The reintroduction of the Mexican gray into the wild is an uphill battle. In another recent relocation, an unknown gunman shot the female wolf, which brings us back to knowledge. The more we know about these animals, the more likely we are to value their place. Perhaps we can positively alter human behavior if we gain a greater appreciation for wolf behavior.

(Describer) A wolf walks around a rock.

(male) As top predators, wolves know all about staying out of sight. However, Jeff Dolphin has a hunting trick of his own.

(Describer) He holds up an antenna.

(Jeff Dolphin) There's a yearling wolf from the Blue Stone pack. You can barely hear him. He's one we might try and get a look at today.

(Bill Street) There are only 75 Mexican wolves known in the wild. At any given moment, wildlife specialists like Dolphin can tell you the location of most of them.

(Describer) He listens to a device.

Okay, this is 1290. This is her brother. You see this big mountain right here? This is Mount Baldy on the horizon. He's been just to the east of it, directly where I'm pointing.

(Bill) Many wolves are fitted with transmitting radio collars. Each has its own signal and corresponding number. Using a method called radio telemetry, Dolphin can use the signals to keep track of individual wolves and entire wolf packs.

(Describer) Dolphin:

This is 1107, the one we heard on the way up. He's the closest out of all of these ones that we're hearing.

(Bill) While radio telemetry can reveal locations, it can't tell much about wolf behavior, at least not without some additional detective work.

(Describer) In a forest...Dolphin:

We had a cluster of points from this female's GPS collar in this area that showed she was here for about two days.

(Bill) It could be the female is looking for a spot to make a den, a birthplace for future pups.

(Describer) Dolphin:

There could be a kill somewhere in the area, so we're checking these points one by one to see if there's anything that was keeping her here.

(Bill) To the untrained eye, this hike reveals nothing. But for the trained nose-- It's very musky smelling, like elk.

(Describer) Dolphin:

(Bill) Dolphin follows the scent and finds evidence of wolf activity.

(Jeff) This is where the point's at, and there's fur here, elk hair, lots of elk hair. They were eating on something and this is where it was.

(Bill) All evidence pointing to an elk kill, with not just one, but several wolves working together on the hunt.

(Describer) Dolphin:

Look at that tree. You see the broken branches? That means this was its last moments right here. They had it corralled in these trees. That's when they were able to take it down.

(Bill) Wolf packs can vary. Gray wolves have larger packs than Mexican wolves. However, the basic structure is the same. There's the alpha male and female plus the pups and juvenile wolves.

(Describer) Dolphin:

(Jeff) The pups from the previous year stick around and help raise one litter and then disperse the following year.

(Describer) Mossotti:

(Regina Mossotti) My favorite thing about wolves is their social structure. That surprised me, how close they resemble our family. They have their ups and downs, and Mom and Dad discipline the younger ones, and they play. It's amazing to watch the interactions between pack members, how loyal they are, how smart, and how much they work together to make sure the whole pack survives and is strong.

(Bill) Wolves care for each other. However, that's not to say all is peaceful in the pack.

(Describer) Dolphin:

(Jeff) When those wolves become a year and a half, two years old, those juveniles will start to disperse and try and look for other males or females to pair with and start packs of their own in different territories.

(Bill) Whether it's a new or established pack, the struggle for the top job never ends.

(Describer) Dophin:

(Jeff) It's natural selection and nature's way of ensuring that strong, healthy, dominant wolves are always there to pass their genes along. There's always a fight and a reestablishment of dominance.

(Bill) Wolves have intense social structures, structures that couldn't exist without a means of clear communication.

(Describer) Dolphin:

I howl right when it's getting dark. That's when I'll go as close as I can to 'em and I'll howl at 'em like this--


(Bill) At this time of day, there's no reply, but closer to dark and with wolves closer by, Dolphin has prompted return howls, which he's recorded.

(Describer) Dolphin:

I feel like I'm talking to 'em, but don't know what I'm saying. Howling is a very complex thing and each howl is different. Like my voice is different from your voice, one wolf howl is different from another.

(Bill) Even if he can't speak wolf, Dolphin and his colleagues can detect enough differences to gather some basic data.

(Jeff) Sometimes we'll do a howling survey. We'll go to the rendezvous sites and howl, then the wolves howl back. We can count how many pups are there sometimes from those howls.

(Bill) Because many wolf populations were eradicated more than 100 years ago, much of the knowledge we once had of wolves died with our ancestors. It's a matter of regaining that knowledge, even as wolves reclaim their place in the wild.

(Jeff) When you follow an animal through the woods and see where it goes, where it hunts, and how it utilizes the landscape and its environment, you definitely learn to see things, like, the way they're seeing them on the landscape.

(Describer) A grey wolf stands in snow, looking around. Street:

Many could go entire lifetimes without ever seeing wolves in the wild. Fortunately, zoological settings give us opportunities to make discoveries. It's time now to return to the story of Boise, the wolf mistaken for a dog and now living where people encounter wolves on a daily basis.

(Describer) Megan:

(Megan Glass) Wolf Valley at Busch Gardens Williamsburg is home to several adult wolves, plus some younger juveniles. One goes by the curious name of Boise.

(Describer) Tacey:

He came from Zoo Boise, so Boise just stuck.

(Describer) Megan:

Just like in nature, Boise's learning to find his own place among the other wolves.

(Describer) Tacey:

(Jay Tacey) It was a matter of acclimating, getting used to the environment. He's started to settle in.

(Megan) Boise is finding his place within the pack. He's also forming his own routine, even venturing out now during education presentations.

(Describer) Tacey:

We view the wolves as ambassadors. When people experience them, they get a sense of their family structure, how smart, loyal, how adaptable they are.

(Describer) Megan:

It's not just seeing the wolves. With this species, sometimes you have to use your ears.


(Describer) Tacey:

There's nothing like hearing a wolf howl for the first time. It puts you back 1,000 years. There's no better way to appreciate this species.


(Describer) Street:

Whether seeing a wolf in a zoo and sharing your knowledge or supporting efforts of groups working toward the survival of wolves, there are many ways you can get involved in wolf conservation. Julie Scardina takes us to Wolf Country for a look at how far we have to go.

(Julie Scardina) Cooperative and highly adaptable, it comes as no surprise that at one time, wolves were a dominant species with extraordinary spread around the globe. The only animal more cooperative and adaptable is us, but that hasn't worked out well

(Describer) Julie Scardina:

for the wolf over the past few hundred years.

(Describer) Westra:

During human settlement in the late 1800s, lots of places adopted anti-predator campaigns. Since wolves were a prime predator, they became a prime target. In a lot of places, they were almost entirely exterminated.

(Julie) Fortunately wolves aren't the target they used to be.

(Describer) Scardina takes photos.

With the protection of the Endangered Species Act and the hard work of conservation organizations, wolves did make a comeback. Gray wolves now number about 1,500 in the west and 4,000 in the Great Lakes area, and there's room for more. Even with the areas settled by humans, several states have enough space for suitable wolf habitats. For that to happen, it'll take a change of heart. Make no mistake, wolves prefer a wild prey, but wild prey can be scarce, and there are areas where livestock comes in close proximity to wolves, and livestock deaths can occur. You might understand why farmers and ranchers may view wolves as a threat to their livestock and livelihood.

(Describer) Dwire:

We spend time with proactive management efforts that try to reduce the potential for wolf and livestock conflicts before they happen.

(Julie) Conservation groups work with ranchers to explore ways of coexisting with wolves, teaching ranchers how to keep their livestock from becoming prey.

(Describer) Dwire:

(Maggie) Environmental groups put money onto the ground to prevent wolves and livestock from coming in conflict with one another. We have partnerships with sister agencies. They look at cattle rotations when wolves are denning so we can move cows away from denning wolves.

(Julie) Beyond teaching ranchers how to avoid conflicts with wolves, there's a larger need for broader education and a cultural change at large.

(Describer) In a mask.

The only wolf we need to eliminate is

(Describer) She takes it off.

the mythical big bad wolf that we've created in our own imaginations. For me, conservation is so important

(Describer) Busch:

and education goes hand in hand with that. You can't save a species unless you learn about them and unless you teach children and adults about why it's so important.

(Julie) The wolf is what's called an apex predator. Without the wolf doing its job, certain species, like elk, start to overpopulate and spread disease. An overabundance of elk leads to damage of entire tree species. Smaller animals that depend on trees are in trouble. The delicate balance of a forest is thrown out of whack, for lack of an animal that serves a vital role. It doesn't have to be that way. We can restore wolf populations and preserve our ecosystems. It requires that we make a decision.

(Describer) Dwire:

There's habitat for wolves. It just depends on whether or not we want wolves there.

(Describer) A wolf in the snow looks up. Street:

That choice is something we have to think about. To find resources and get pointed in the right direction, visit and become a fan of the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens Conservation Fund Facebook page. With these resources, you can learn even more about ways to protect wolves in the wild. I'm Bill Street saying thanks to our friends at the Endangered Wolf Center and Defenders of Wildlife for their help, and thanks to you for watching and for your part in "Saving a Species."

(Describer) Logos are shown for Sea World and Busch Gardens. Accessibility provided by the US Department of Education.

Accessibility provided by the U.S. Department of Education.

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Report a Problem

Predators play a fundamental role in maintaining the health of ecosystems. Research strongly supports the contributions of wolves in particular to the functioning and stability of the overall landscape. Students will learn about conservation methods to reintroduce and protect wolves in the wild. Part of the "Saving a Species" series.

Media Details

Runtime: 28 minutes

Saving a Species
Episode 1
30 minutes
Grade Level: 5 - 9
Saving a Species
Episode 2
28 minutes
Grade Level: 5 - 9
Saving a Species
Episode 3
31 minutes
Grade Level: 5 - 9