The wolf was originally one of the world's most common mammals. The species was present throughout Europe, large parts of Asia as well as North and Central America. The wolf was thus resident almost everywhere on the northern hemisphere. The wolf was driven to extermination by man in large parts of its original distribution area, particularly in Western and Northern Europe as well as in Northern America. Larger connected wolf populations are only left in Russia, Canada and Alaska. Today, there are around 170,000 wolves throughout the world.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) does not list the species wolf (Canis lupus) in the Red List of globally threatened species. However, several populations in Europe and Northern America are identified as being endangered or even severely endangered at a regional level.
IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) 2010. Canis lupus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2014.3
Distribution in Europe
In former times the wolf could be found throughout Europe. The species was driven to near extermination by man and forced back to a few isolated populations in many regions of Western and Central Europe. Not before the 1970s and 1980s did a process of rethinking take place and the wolf was given protection in many European countries to prevent the populations from declining further.
Today the wolf is protected in many European countries; the populations are recovering and spreading again. As a result, the wolves are starting to recolonise former habitats where they were exterminated a long time ago. This process is currently occurring in several European regions.
Wolf populations in Europe
Today, around 12,000 wolves live in Europe in ten populations (Chapron et al. 2014), which are in part isolated from each other. Since the animals do not care about administrative borders determined by humans, it makes sense to divide the animals into biological units, so-called populations. Populations are reproduction units with a more or less continuous distribution area. This means that the wolves in Europe are assigned to different populations mainly based on the space-related gaps existing between them. In individual cases, they are also divided on the basis of different management regimes or where it has been scientifically proven that there is hardly any connectivity between them even though they are not far away from each other.
As a rule, neighbouring populations are connected genetically to each other through single individuals that migrate from one population to the other. Biologists use the term metapopulation ("population of populations") in conjunction with populations that interact on a genetic level. The Large Carnivore Initiative for Europe (LCIE) differentiates between ten wolf populations (please refer to the map). Some of them are genetically totally isolated (e.g. the Iberian) while others interact genetically with each other to a certain degree. The wolves in Germany and the wolves in Western and Central Poland are considered part of the Central European lowland population.
Current distribution of wolves in Europe (Large Carnivore Initiative for Europe, from KACZENSKY ET AL., 2013).
The dark grey spots show permanent populations while the light grey spots point out sporadic populations. The blue names indicate the respective partial populations.