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Column: Wolves are necessary for ecological health

Albuquerque Journal - October 23, 2015

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By Sharman Apr Russell / Writers On The Range

This fall, for the second time, the New Mexico Game and Fish Commission rejected a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposal to release two adult Mexican wolves with pups, and up to 10 captive-born wolf pups, into the Mexican Wolf Recovery Area in southern Arizona and New Mexico.

An important part of the release, which was planned for next spring, involved fostering the 10 motherless pups with wild wolves that came from packs with good track records of preying on elk, not cattle.

The larger goal was to increase the genetic diversity of the 110 Mexican wolves now in the wild, a subspecies smaller and lighter than the northern gray wolf and uniquely adapted to the Southwest.

The federal agency has made it clear: The clock is ticking for the Mexican wolf. When packs have too many genetically similar wolves, it doesn't bode well for their survival.

But the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish has also made it clear that it will continue to thwart wolf reintroduction in New Mexico, even though the reintroduction is mandated by federal law and supported by a majority of citizens. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service now has to decide whether to go ahead with wolf reintroduction against the state agency's wishes [USFWS has announced its intention to move forward with wolf releases in spite of NM Game and Fish’s objections].

Loss of biodiversity often seems to be collateral damage from basic human activities such as growing crops, mining ore, or building houses. But there are also targeted losses like this one -- and they are instructive.

In the 1980s, some New Mexico citizens began a movement to return the wolf to their public lands. The animal had been vigorously -- one might say hysterically – poisoned, trapped and finally exterminated.

So in 1998, 11 wolves born and raised in captivity were radio-collared and released in a recovery area of over 4.4 million acres. This strategy worked. The animals quickly readapted; they formed packs, bred, hunted and howled. They were home again.

But some of the people living closest to those public lands have been reducing the wolf population by shooting them. They build unnecessary wooden enclosures to "protect" their children waiting for school buses on roads and highways. They put up billboards next to gas stations and rural post offices that warn, "Beware! Wolves Nearby! Keep Kids and Pets Close!"

The current hysteria around the wolf may be part of a larger fear, as these rural communities face increasing economic hardship and an uncertain future. The resistance to wolf reintroduction is also a stubborn denial of the well-known cycle of prey and predator necessary for ecological health. And it is a refusal to accept the will of the majority of Americans, who want wolves, wildness and biodiversity.

Well, we can all be stubborn and opinionated. I also live next to these public lands — the Gila National Forest in southwestern New Mexico — and I am loathe to judge my neighbors for faults I might share. I do, however, hold the state Game and Fish commissioners accountable for their decision to subvert the reintroduction of an endangered species. Don't they have training in ecology or wildlife management? And don't they represent all of New Mexico, as well as the laws we all live under?

In 1998, the same year the Mexican wolves were first released, the writer David Quammen coined the phrase "planet of weeds." His argument was that habitat loss and degradation would result in an earth inhabited by scrappy, adaptable "weedy" species that reproduced quickly and cohabited well with Homo sapiens -- the ultimate weed. We would become a planet of generalists: rats, cockroaches, pigeons, deer.

So far, fortunately, that hasn't happened – at least not yet, not in my part of the West. I live in a healthy ecosystem that still includes mountain lions in the hills and native trout in the rivers. I regularly see foxes, coati, javelina, tiger beetles, and vermillion flycatchers, as well as coyotes and deer, generalists and specialists both. I live in rich abundance. Yes, the river otter is gone. So, too, the grizzly, the jaguar, the prairie dog. Maybe, now, the Mexican wolf.

How easily could we slip into becoming a "planet of weeds?" Here in the Southwest, climate change is a hot wind at our backs. We need Mexican wolves to flourish; we need to protect every species that we can, as fast as we can. And we desperately need leaders who will work to preserve — not destroy — an abundance that we have come to take too much for granted.

Sharman Apt Russell is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. She is a writer in Silver City, New Mexico.

This Column was published in the Allbuquerque Journal.
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The letters to the editor page is one of the most widely read, influential parts of the newspaper. One letter from you can reach thousands of people and will also likely be read by decision-makers.  Tips and talking points for writing your letter are below, but please write in your own words, from your own experience. Don't try to include all of the points below. Your letter will be effective if you keep it brief and focus on a few key points.

Letter Writing Talking Points & Tips
  • In denying permits to release Mexican gray wolves, New Mexico Game and Fish sought to undermine state and federal law. New Mexico law requires the state to recover endangered species, including the wolves, which are listed at the state and the federal level as an endangered species.
  • As the column stated, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recognizes that "the clock is ticking for the Mexican wolf". Mexican gray wolves remain at the brink of extinction. They do not have time to wait while New Mexico Game and Fish plays politics with their survival.
  • New Mexico and Arizona polling shows that the vast majority of voters in both states support the Mexican wolf reintroduction. Instead of trying to undermine wolf recovery, the NM Game and Fish Department should be working to help these endangered native wolves thrive.
  • The wild population of Mexican wolves is at tremendous risk due to its small size and genetics. Many more wolves should be released as soon as possible from the hundreds in captive breeding programs, and Governor Martinez’s Game Commission should not be allowed to stand in the way.
  • The US Fish and Wildlife Service made a responsible decision not to let the New Mexico Game Commission put the wolves’ future at risk, and the Service should move forward quickly with new wolf releases, desperately needed to improve the wild wolves’ genetic health.
  • A system that does not result in qualified biologists on the Game and Fish Commission is a system that is not working in the best interests of the state’s wildlife and people.
  • Commissioners should be selected on the basis of their experience and ability to make science based decisions that are good for all wildlife, especially endangered species. Instead, they are being appointed to serve Governor Martinez’s political agenda.
  • New Mexico needs a wildlife agency that honors and fulfills its public trust obligations by representing the best interests of all of the state’s wildlife, including keystone carnivores like wolves.
  • The New Mexico Game Commission is heavily biased against non-game species, especially important carnivores like wolves. This needs to change.
  • Peer reviewed science by top wolf experts says that Mexican wolves need four things to recover: they need two new populations north of Interstate 40 and the ability to travel between the three populations; they need genetic rescue, which requires expedited releases from the captive population; human caused mortality must decrease; and there must be an absolute minimum of 750 wolves in the wild. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should move forward with all of these things now.
  • The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a legal and moral obligation to do follow the best available science and do what is needed to recover endangered Mexican gray wolves in spite of politically motivated state opposition.
General talking points about the importance of wolves.
  • Wolves are an essential part of the balance of nature.  They keep elk and deer herds healthy by ensuring the most fit animals survive.
  • Mexican gray wolves are beautiful, intelligent, family oriented animals who were persecuted and nearly exterminated by the government. Our state and federal government should do everything in its power to ensure these native animals do not go extinct in the wild again.
  • Wolves are responsible for less than 1% of livestock losses. Most livestock losses are due to disease, accidents, and bad weather. The livestock industry has a responsibility to share public lands with wolves and other wildlife by using coexistence methods to avoid conflicts between livestock and wolves.
  • Wolves are part of God’s creation. We have a responsibility to take care of them.
Make sure you:
  • Thank the paper for publishing the editorial.
  • Submit your letter as soon as possible. The chance of your letter being published declines after a day or two since the article was published.
  • Do not repeat any negative messages, such as “so and so says that wolves kill too many cows, but…”  Remember that those reading your letter will not be looking at the article it responds to, so this is an opportunity to get out positive messages about wolf recovery rather than to argue with the original article.
  • Keep your letter brief, between 150-250 words.
  • Include something about who you are and why you care: E.g. “I am a mother, outdoors person, teacher, business owner, scientific, religious, etc.”
  • Provide your name, address, phone number and address.  The paper won’t publish these, but they want to know you are who you say you are.
  • Submit your letter to the Albuquerque Journal here.
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Would you like to do more for Mexican wolves?

Thank Secretary Jewell and Director Ashe for doing the right thing for endangered lobos!

Unfortunately, federal agencies too-often bow to anti-wolf states and make decisions that are not in the best interest of Mexican gray wolf recovery. So in cases like this, where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has decided to go forward with urgently needed releases in spite of state opposition, we want to give them lots of support and appreciation.

Please call or email Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe and thank them.

Secretary Sally Jewell: Phone: (202) 208-7351. Emails can be sent to feedback@ios.doi.gov

Director Dan Ashe: Phone (202) 208-4717. Emails can be sent to dan_ashe@fws.gov or http://www.fws.gov/duspit/contactus.htm

Talking points for your calls or emails:
  • I want to thank Secretary Jewell and Director Ashe for embracing their mission to recover endangered Mexican gray wolves and thoughtfully making a science-driven decision to move forward with releases to improve the wild wolf population’s genetic health.
  • I hope that the decision to refuse to allow states to prevent actions necessary for Mexican wolf recovery will also apply to Arizona.
  • I want to encourage the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to continue to follow the best available science and be willing to adaptively manage to improve the lobos’ genetic health -- even if that requires more and faster releases than have originally been estimated.
  • Thank you for doing the right thing for endangered Mexican gray wolves.
If you email, be sure to include your full name and address so that they know this is a legitimate message.

THANK YOU FOR ACTING TO ENSURE THE FUTURE OF THESE SPECIAL WOLVES!

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