Lobos in Limbo

FWS proposal would further stall Mexican gray wolf recovery

Mexican Gray Wolf, © Jim Clark / FWS

© Jim Clark / FWS

It wasn’t all that long ago that Mexican gray wolves—a species as iconic to the Southwest landscape as cacti and desert mesas—roamed freely, their howls echoing through the great canyons of New Mexico and Arizona.

Over the past century, however, these wolves were poisoned, shot and trapped nearly out of existence. Considered a threat to livestock, they were gone from the United States by the late 1970s, and only seven individuals could be found in Mexico.

Now, three decades after the U.S. government recognized that the species was close to extinction and began a captive-breeding program, this animal is still on the brink of fading from the landscape forever.

With only about 75 individuals in the wild, Mexican gray wolves are still among the country’s most imperiled wildlife.

Unlike other gray wolves—which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is proposing to remove from federal protections—the Mexican gray wolf is expected to remain listed under the Endangered Species Act. However, conservationists say that new proposed rules to govern the wolf’s management and recovery would not provide what the wolves need to survive in the wild.

“FWS continues to want to keep the wolves boxed in between arbitrary lines on a map,” says Eva Sargent, Defenders’ Southwest director. “FWS is proposing a bigger box, but it’s still a box [see dark green area on map].The wolves need help getting to suitable habitat areas to establish new populations.”

Currently, wolves must remain within invisible boundaries in eastern Arizona and western New Mexico. If they set up territories outside of the lines, they are immediately trapped and moved back.

Published scientific studies, and the work of the present and previous recovery teams, indicate that new core populations, created by the release of more captive wolves in the wild, are essential for the survival of the Mexican gray wolf.

At least three separate populations in different areas of suitable habitat with adequate dispersal among them are necessary for long-term recovery. And the best habitats for new populations are in the Grand Canyon area of northern Arizona and southern Utah, and in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, areas where—under the proposed rules—the wolves would not be allowed.

The population of Mexican gray wolves in captive-breeding programs now stands at about 300 wolves. But without the release of more of these wolves in the wild, the few that do roam free face a constant struggle to establish populations and overcome the complications of a lack of genetic diversity that can lower litter sizes or increase susceptibility to disease.

Exacerbating the wolves’ struggle are shootings, like the one that happened this summer. The victim, known as F1108, was a breeding alpha female that had been released with her mate from the captive-breeding program in May. “The pair, one of very few releases, had been a beacon of hope for the small population,” says Sargent.

She adds that people who view wolves only as unwanted predators don’t realize that the loss of the Mexican gray wolf would mean more than the loss of one subspecies. It would mean the loss of a key provider of numerous economic and ecological benefits.

“As charismatic predators, they boost tourism in rural areas and are vital to the health of ecosystems,” says Sargent. One study recently showed that gray wolves released in Yellowstone kept elk populations in check, which in turn left more berries available for consumption by threatened grizzly bears and other animals (see “Beary Good,” page 7). Mexican gray wolves play a similar, critical role in the Southwest ecosystem.

 “If there’s one thing the Mexican wolves have on their side, it’s objective scientists who are figuring out how to save them,” says Sargent. “What they don’t have is time. FWS needs to focus on what science tells us the wolves need. When we give wolves our best effort, they return the favor by making landscapes healthier for everyone.”  

—Courtney Sexton 

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