Humans pose the greatest threat to Mexican gray wolves. At one point, humans literally eliminated these animals from the wild and it took an unprecedented captive breeding program to keep them from disappearing forever. Today, efforts to restore them to their natural place in the ecosystem are met with a number of challenges.
Human intolerance is one of the biggest problems for lobos. Anti-government sentiment contributes to intolerance, as do misconceptions and myths about wolves. Despite the facts that Mexican gray wolves are responsible for less than one percent of livestock deaths each year and have never attacked a person, they are often resented and feared in communities near the recovery area in southern Arizona and New Mexico. While a majority of people in both states support wolf recovery, illegal killings continue to be the leading cause of death for lobos.
Every Mexican gray wolf in the world today is a descendant of the seven original captive wolves that were part of the breeding program that allowed the species to be reintroduced, so their genetic diversity is extremely low. This means they don’t have a large number of different traits carried in their genes. A high amount of genetic diversity is the engine of adaptability – it allows populations to change their biology when conditions change, and that’s key to survival. The wild wolves’ genetic situation is made worse by years of few if any releases of new wolves (and new genes) from captivity, by the removal of wolves for conflicts with livestock without regard to the wolves’ genetic makeup, and by policies that kept the population from expanding during the first few years in the wild. Until many more wolves are released, the population’s genetic problems will continue worsen. Already, inbreeding is causing the wolves to have smaller litters of pups.
Lack of Political Will
The Mexican gray wolf is lucky in one respect – recovering the lobo has captured the attention of some of the most highly regarded scientists in the field. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s recovery team has done extensive analyses and population modeling to determine the conditions under which the Mexican gray wolf will be secure enough to be removed from the endangered species list. Unfortunately the Service appears reluctant to finish the recovery plan and begin the complex steps that will be necessary, which include establishing at least two additional populations in areas of suitable habitat. The full recovery team (which includes Defenders) has not met since 2011. And despite the clear and urgent need to release more wolves to address the issue of genetic diversity, no wolves have been successfully reintroduced in years, yet many have been killed or recaptured.