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'Three Strikes Rule' Out, Wolf Numbers Rise in Southwest
by Heidi Ridgley
© Tom and Pat Leeson (captive)
Hope is on the horizon for Mexican wolves in the American Southwest. Los lobos numbers grew for the first time in four years—from 42 to at least 50, including two breeding pairs—according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) annual January tally. That’s a 20 percent increase.
Their struggle is far from over though. In fact, these numbers are still below the historic high of 59 in 2006. But the uptick signals that changes to the wolf-management policy last year, which included an end to excessive wolf removal and the return of federal oversight, could mean the tide is finally turning for the beleaguered species.
Requiem for a Wolf
Mexican wolves have had a lot of obstacles thrown their way since the original 11 were reintroduced into the wild in 1998. But the biggest problem—and their main cause of death—is illegal killings. Last year, wolf-haters killed at least four, including the alpha male from the Hawk’s Nest—one of the original packs reintroduced into the wild—the alpha male from the San Mateo pack, and Estrella (right), officially known as F521.
Born at a zoo in 1997, Estrella turned 13 last May, becoming the oldest known Mexican wolf in the wild in the history of the program. In December, she was found shot to death in New Mexico. Once the alpha female of the Bluestem pack, in her lifetime she gave birth to 22 pups, with at least nine becoming parents themselves and some of them going on to lead their own packs.
In 2009, she left the Bluestem and was found with the Fox Mountain pack later that year. That pack’s alpha male had lost his mate—one of Estrella’s daughters—to a gunman the year before. The male was left alone to raise their three pups—until Estrella arrived on the scene to help raise her grandpups.
Defenders sued FWS in 2008 to end the harmful three-strikes-and-the-wolf-is-out rule, which required that any wolf that killed or may have killed three livestock in a year had to be killed or returned to captivity. That was true even if it happened on the 97 percent of wolf range that is on public forest land and despite the fact that wolf kills account for less than 1 percent of cattle deaths each year.
With pack sizes in the Southwest so small, such an aggressive wolf-control measure repeatedly knocked the population down and kept it there. Even now, with only 50 individuals in just one population, it’s still like having all your eggs in one basket, cautions Eva Sargent, Defenders of Wildlife’s Southwest program director. A sudden disease outbreak or a natural disaster, such as a major fire, could destroy a pack or the entire wild population.
“FWS must take advantage of this opportunity and do everything it can to continue boosting the population, including releasing more wolves into the wild,” says Sargent. "New wolves will help strengthen packs and refresh gene pools, giving the population a better chance at survival.”
To build on the recent good news, Defenders is calling upon FWS to move quickly to complete a science-based, wolf-recovery plan—the original plan is almost 30 years old and has no clear goals. A new recovery team meets this month, with Defenders at the table.
“It’s important to keep in mind that nobody would say that a single population of 50 wolves in the wild means that the species is safe from extinction,” says Sargent. “That’s why recent congressional attempts to throw Mexican wolves off the Endangered Species Act ark are so absurd.”