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In the News: Lone wolf deserves chance to meet others

Arizona Daily Star, 11/27/14


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She must be lonely, spending Thanksgiving weekend wandering the Grand Canyon’s North Rim all on her own.

She’s a fertile, female wolf, and finding a mate is likely the force that drove her southward from her home in the northern Rocky Mountains.

This is how Ed Bangs, a former federal wolf expert in that region, explained her likely motivation: “It’s looking for love,” he told The Associated Press. “It leaves the core population and doesn’t know the love of its life is going to be right over the next hill, so it just keeps traveling.”

If only there were some wolves nearby ...

Of course, there are 83 of them — about 200 miles southeast in the White Mountains and adjacent areas of eastern Arizona and western New Mexico. All that stands between her and them is the Grand Canyon and our wildlife bureaucracy.

This week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released documents that spell out some of the details of how they propose to manage the reintroduced Mexican gray wolves of the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area. That’s where efforts to reintroduce endangered Mexican gray wolves began in 1998 and foundered for more than a decade before the population began to grow again over the last few years.

The documents show that the service plans to expand the areas in which the wolves are allowed to wander — a welcome change from the strict boundaries and behavioral rules that Arizona Game and Fish enforced during the first decade-plus of the effort. The newly opened areas would include about half of Arizona, including all of the southeastern quadrant, as well as about a third of New Mexico, mostly in the southwestern part of that state.
But the service sets a strict northern boundary for the Mexican gray wolves at Interstate 40. So even if the expanded range were already in effect now, wildlife managers would still prevent wolves from roaming northwest toward the Grand Canyon, cutting the distance between them and this potential new pack member and mate. Wolves north of that line could be picked up and returned or even killed if necessary.

That’s a shame, because this female wolf is from a different subspecies of gray wolves. Her genes, introduced to the semi-inbred population in the Blue Range, would increase their genetic diversity and vitality considerably. It’s also a shame because it puts our abstract rules and boundaries on what could be a natural flow.

“Wolf geneticists over the last decade have been documenting that there was genetically a gradient from the Mexican gray wolf to the northern Rockies wolves,” conservation biologist Carlos Carroll told me.

In other words, there wasn’t a clear genetic distinction between Mexican gray wolves in the south and northern gray wolves, but rather a transition zone between, say, Arizona and Wyoming, where the wolves were less and less Mexican the farther north they were found.

“That old paradigm of drawing hard lines on a map to divide subspecies — that was typical of naturalists 100 years ago,” said Carroll, of the Klamath Center for Conservation Research.

He was a member of the group of scientists contributing to the Mexican gray wolf recovery team up until last year and was lead author of a paper on wolf genetics in the journal Conservation Biology published last year. Among its conclusions: “long-term prospects for recovery of gray wolves in the western U.S. may hinge on wolves being able to successfully disperse between widely separated populations.”

The paper also points to the Grand Canyon area, all of which is north of Interstate 40, as one of the most suitable areas for additional Mexican gray wolf populations.

Arizona Game and Fish, which helped mold this latest Fish and Wildlife Service proposal, argues there is reason to have a northern boundary.

In short, the idea is that “we want Mexican wolves where Mexican wolves were,” explained Jim DeVos, the assistant director of Arizona Game and Fish overseeing wildlife.

The scientific research describes the wolves as largely having been a creature of Southeastern Arizona, as well as adjacent New Mexico and Mexico, he said. But it would be difficult to draw a line at, say, Mount Ord in the White Mountains and say no wolves should go north of there.

I-40 “is north of the historic range and a logical demarcation for Mexican wolves,” DeVos said. “Why go north when the suitable habitat goes south?”

My question is: Why demarcate the territory at all? Having reintroduced these animals, why not let them do what they obviously do naturally — roam, run into each other, mate and create their own packs and populations?

This article was published in the Arizona Daily Sun.
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