Wolf Awareness Week: Arctic wolf pup trotting

Photo: Volodymyr Burdiak/Shutterstock

Wolves have long been considered icons of fear and danger, but it's difficult to hold on to that assumption when you realize that humans almost drove the wolves of North America to extinction at the turn of the 19th century.

This is why the third week of October is being celebrated by wolf advocates as Wolf Awareness Week. Organized by the Wisconsin-based North Lakeland Discovery Center and the Timber Wolf Alliance, the weeklong observance is "a time when organizations around the country work together to get out information on this charismatic and often misunderstood species."

The conservation of these iconic apex predators remains a politically charged issue that pits conservationists against ranchers and hunters. Needless to say, finding a balance in wolf management is a contentious topic.

While wolves continue to face many hurdles in their recovery, awareness is increasing. You can learn more about these amazing creatures and celebrate Wolf Awareness Week with these photos of downright adorable wolf cubs.

Wolf Awareness Week: Timber wolf pup cuddling with mom

Photo: outdoorsman/Shutterstock

After their near eradication, America's gray wolves were placed on the endangered species list in 1974. This strict protection allowed many populations across North America to rebuild and thrive. That is until 2013, when their numbers were deemed recovered enough to be removed from the list.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considers the gray wolf comeback one of the country's greatest conservation success stories to date, but there is still much controversy surrounding the decision. Now that protections have been lifted, it is legal to hunt or trap them, as long as their numbers meet a certain quota.

Wolf Awareness Week: Captive red wolf

Photo: Ryan Nordsven/USFWS

Many conservationists worry that the decision to remove them as an endangered species is premature, while ranchers and hunters — who regard the canines as dangerous pests that kill livestock and game — say the change couldn't have come soon enough.
Wolf Awareness Week: Pair of cubs on log, howling

Photo: outdoorsman/Shutterstock

The reintroduction of one of the most imperiled subspecies of gray wolf, the Mexican gray wolf, has been one of the most controversial battles in America's wolf wars. The Mexican wolf population has less than 100 documented individuals, and while they remain under federal management, conservation efforts have been hampered by illegal shootings. Just last week, one individual was found dead within Arizona's Blue Range recovery area.
Wolf Awareness Week: Wolf den

Photo: A.von Dueren/Shutterstock

While robust populations of wolves are not good for ranchers trying to maintain livestock, scientists have found that the presence of wolves can pose major benefits to other animals living in the same ecosystem. For example, after wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park in 1995, researchers found that the ability of wolves to keep populations of elk in check directly correlated to how well grizzly bears are able to fatten themselves up before winter hibernation.

It's a complicated story, but these photos offer a much simpler angle: wolf pups just trying to learn the ways of the world.

Wolf Awareness Week: Wolf mom licking cub

Photo: Lori Labrecque/Shutterstock

Wolf Awareness Week: Rusty wolf cub

Photo: Tambako The Jaguar/Flickr

Wolf Awareness Week: Family of Arctic wolves

Photo: Volodymyr Burdiak/Shutterstock

Wolf Awareness Week: Wolf pups wrestling

Photo: Wolf Mountain Images/Shutterstock

Wolf Awareness Week: Wolf pups greet mom

Photo: Debbie Steinhausser/Shutterstock

Wolf Awareness Week: Cubs cuddling and sleeping

Photo: lightberserk/Shutterstock

Wolf Awareness Week: Wolf cub portrait

Photo: BMJ/Shutterstock

Wolf Awareness Week: Pup shaking head

Photo: peupleloup/Flickr

Wolf Awareness Week: Arctic wolves

Photo: Volodymyr Burdiak/Shutterstock

* * *
Catie Leary is a photo editor at Mother Nature Network. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.

Catie Leary ( @catieleary ) writes about science, travel, animals and the arts.