The San Francisco Zoo introduced four female Mexican gray wolves to its Wolf Canyon habitat this week as part of an ongoing effort to sustain this endangered subspecies of the gray wolf; of the four canines, one has been named “Betty White” in honor of the late actress who was a life-long supporter of wildlife conservation and animal rights.

Over a century ago, gray wolves roamed throughout the continental United States, numbering in the hundreds of thousands. But the ensuing decades showed humankind's takeover of natural spaces, eradicating their natural hunting grounds, breeding dens, and habitats to make way for growing infrastructure, all of which, simultaneously, decimated their endemic populations. Though gray wolves have substantially recovered since the 1970s — due in part to in-the-field and captive conservation efforts, as well as the passing of the Endangered Species Act in 1973— their present-day numbers still remain a fraction of what they historically were.

Around 18,000 gray wolves currently live in North America; an estimated two-thirds of that number is found in Alaska.

And with the recent passing of less strict legislation around circumstantial hunting practices around the species, some packs have been decimated or outright killed off; 20 gray wolves have been killed just outside Yellow Stone National Park over the past four months — a devastating blow to the genetic viability of the species.

Moreover: Mexican gray wolves, a subspecies of our native gray wolf species, are even rarer and have been afforded fewer protections from the Mexican government. Suffice to say that news of a recent introduction of four new female wolves to SF Zoo's exhibit dedicated to the animals is welcomed.

“We are thrilled to continue to tell the story of this subspecies, which has seen a comeback of sorts over the past 25 years,” said Tanya M. Peterson, CEO and Executive Director of San Francisco Zoological Society, in an email to SFist, before mentioning the honorable naming of one wolf.

"After the passing of the legendary Betty White, we wanted to find a way to honor her, as she has been such a treasured advocate for zoos," Peterson continues. "With the arrival of these siblings, we felt that by naming one after her, our guests may want to learn more about these amazing wolves.”

The Mexican gray wolf is the most endangered wolf subspecies known to science. Much like the gray wolves they diverged from, they were once abundant throughout Mexico and the Southwestern United States, preying on large mammals like native elk and deer — but the subspecies became nearly extinct by the 1970s by livestock ranchers, hunting, trapping, and poisoning. Just five individuals of the subspecies existed at one point during that same decade.

Fast forward to now, there are an estimated 186 Mexican gray wolves that now live in the wild and about another 220 wolves managed by zoological and conservation facilities, like the SF Zoo. North America’s gray wolves were taken off the Endangered Species List in October of 2020 during the Trump administration’s pullback on wildlife conservatorship laws, their continued future survival is even more at risk.

However, that's not stopping a grassroots effort to push for the species to be placed back under protections afforded by the Endangered Species Act.

“We support relisting the wolf to the Endangered Species List,” adds Peterson. “For the future survival of these incredible animals.”

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Photo: Courtesy of San Francisco Zoo