As the West was settled, many animals were killed—some for food, some for fur, and in the case of the Mexican lobo, for protection of livestock. Though cunning and naturally shy of humans, the wolf was no match for a full assault of trapping, shooting and poisoning. Were it not for landmark legislation, the last wild howl of the Mexican wolf may well have echoed through the Southwest more than 60 years ago.
The Story of the Mexican Gray Wolf
Thousands of Mexican gray wolves roamed the Southwest prior to the arrival of European settlers. Two events set the stage for the eventual eradication of Mexican wolves. First, increasing numbers of market and sport hunters shot the native prey of wolves, such as deer and elk, to near extinction. Second, cattle and sheep were moved into the Southwest in large numbers, damaging habitats and further reducing wild ungulate (hoofed mammal) populations. Faced with almost no natural prey, wolves preyed on domestic stock to survive.
After the decades-long failure of bounties, the livestock industry pressured the U.S. Biological Survey (later to become the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) to exterminate wolves. The agency reported killing more than 900 wolves in Arizona and New Mexico from 1915 – 1925; many more may have been poisoned and not found.
The effort was so effective that breeding packs were wiped out across the southwestern United States by the early 1940s, leaving a ragged and perpetually harassed population of lobos in northern Mexico. Over the next 30 years, Mexican wolves made repeated efforts to recolonize U.S. habitats, but were always hunted down. The last three Mexican wolves were killed in the U.S. in 1970.
Having finished the job in the U.S., the government exported its wolf eradication expertise to Mexico and exterminated wolves there, too. No wild wolves have been documented in Mexico since 1980.
Mexican gray wolves faced almost certain extinction in the early 1970s. But in 1973, an enlightened Congress passed the Endangered Species Act, which was signed into law by President Richard Nixon. Almost too late, the Mexican wolf was listed as an endangered species in 1976, requiring the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to recover the Mexican wolf to self-sustaining population levels within its historic range in the Southwest.
From just seven survivors, Mexican wolves are trying to claw their way toward recovery. Ironically, their most formidable obstacle remains the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which continues to carry out policies that cause wolves to be shot or trapped and removed from their wild homes. Thirty-eight years after receiving protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the Mexican gray wolf remains the most endangered mammal in North America and the most endangered subspecies of gray wolf in the world.