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Guest Opinion: Eva Sargent: More Mexican gray wolves needed in the wild

Arizona Daily Star – February 22, 2016

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The Mexican gray wolf (also known as “lobo”) is the most-endangered gray wolf in the world. This smaller subspecies of the gray wolf once ruled as top dog throughout the American Southwest until humans drove it to the brink of extinction. And while the lobo population hit a record high last year, this year, the news isn’t so good.

On Feb. 18, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released the 2015 count for Mexican gray wolves, which shows there are now just 97 Mexican gray wolves in the wild, a decrease from 110 lobos in 2014.

A drop in the Mexican gray wolf count is the last thing the lobos need as they continue to fight for their survival. The conservation and scientific communities already know — and have known for years — how to set lobos on the road to recovery.

While the service continues to give in to pressure from the governors of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, causing it to drag its feet on Mexican gray wolf recovery efforts, Defenders of Wildlife has already identified three significant steps that the service needs to take in order for the Mexican gray wolf to recover.

First, it needs to release more lobos from captivity as the first step in a science-based genetic rescue plan. Mexican wolves are facing a genetic crisis. All of the Mexican gray wolves in the world today are descended from only seven wolves that began the captive-breeding program. The captive population has been carefully managed to preserve its genetic diversity, but since the service failed to release enough wolves over the years, the wild population’s gene pool has become extremely limited.

This lack of genetic diversity affects lobos’ ability to raise healthy pups and adapt to changing conditions, keeping them on the brink of extinction. However, there are about 300 Mexican gray wolves in captivity in zoos and breeding centers. Many of these wolves have never bred.

By introducing new breeding pairs from captivity, the gene pool can be expanded in the wild and improve the chances for wolves to survive and thrive in the region.

Second, the service needs to complete and implement the Mexican gray wolf recovery plan. In 1982, the service drafted a so-called recovery plan, but it had no goals beyond a first step of captive breeding and wolf releases. The document did not meet any of the required elements of a bona fide recovery plan. Since then, the service has tried to develop a science-based recovery plan several times, but each time it has abandoned the effort. Now, 40 years after the lobo was listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the wolves are still without the legally required plan.

A scientifically sound recovery plan will provide key insights to keep the lobo safe into the future, such as how many wolves are needed (and in how many populations) and where these populations can find suitable habitat and prey. The agency is clearly violating its own policy that calls for recovery plans to be finalized within 2½ years of listing under the ESA. We are more than 37 years past that deadline.

Third, the service needs to establish additional lobo populations in the wild, ideally within dispersal distance of the established population in Arizona and New Mexico. Without additional populations, the wolves are at risk of extinction from disasters like wildfire or disease. A published, peer-reviewed study concluded that areas in southern Colorado and in the Grand Canyon region still contain some of the best suitable habitat for wolves. These areas have sufficient habitat and prey, low human and road densities and are within dispersal distance of the established populations in Arizona and New Mexico.

Bottom line: We need more wolves in the wild if this iconic species is going to have any chance at survival, let alone recovery. The service needs to assert its authority and recover the Mexican gray wolf now.

Eva Sargent is the senior Southwest representative of Defenders of Wildlife.

This Guest Opinion was published in the Arizona Daily Star.

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Please help Mexican wolves with a letter to the editor!

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 for writing your letter are below, but please write in your own words, from your own experience.  Don’t try to include all the talking points in your letter.

SUBMIT YOUR LETTER TO THE EDITOR OF THE ARIZONA DAILY STAR HERE.

Letter to the Editor Talking Points and Tips
  • With just 97 Mexican gray wolves remain in the wild today in eastern Arizona and western New Mexico, this unique sub-species is teetering on the brink of a second extinction.
  • Geneticists have warned for years that the wild population needs greater diversity, but the US Fish and Wildlife Service has failed to release new wolves into the wild to improve the wolves’ genetic health.
  • For over 3 decades, captive breeding programs in the U.S. and Mexico have worked to maximize genetic diversity so that captive wolves could be released to increase the wild population’s genetic health. But USFWS has released very few of these wolves.  The wild population of Mexican gray wolves remains critically endangered and in need of additional populations, new releases to improve the population’s genetics, and a scientifically valid recovery plan.
  • Almost 18 years after the first Mexican wolves were reintroduced, there are only 97 wolves in the wild. More wolves are needed to stop inbreeding that researchers suggest may be lowering litter sizes and depressing pup-survival rates.
  • The window is closing on fixing the genetic issue, and one of the easiest steps the US Fish and Wildlife Service can take is to release more wolves from captivity, and do it now.
  • The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service needs to do more – and do it fast – to save the lobo from extinction. In order for Mexican gray wolves to recover fully, they need more wolf releases, a science-based recovery plan and more wolf populations in suitable habitats.
  • The US Fish and Wildlife Service should stop letting anti-wolf state officials obstruct wolf recovery.  The last effort to create a Mexican wolf recovery plan stalled precisely because the states were given opportunities to weigh in before the work of the scientific experts was released for public comment. The most recent recovery planning process, which began in 2011, ended amidst allegations of political interference by these same states with the science.
  • Wildlife biologists believe that Mexican wolves will improve the overall health of the Southwest and its rivers and streams – just as the return of gray wolves to Yellowstone has helped restore balance to its lands and waters.
  • States have failed to manage wildlife as a public trust for current and future citizens.  State wildlife policies, which kill off predators to supposedly support game populations, are rooted in the 1800s. Fortunately, our national policy is to restore andpreserve all forms of wildlife, including predators.  Until the states get serious about balancing conservation vs. consumption, they should recuse themselves from decisions about endangered species.
  • Enough is enough. The Service needs to assert its authority and recover the Mexican gray wolf.
  • Mexican gray wolves are unique native animals. They are the rarest, most genetically distinct subspecies of gray wolf in North America and the most endangered wolf in the world.
  • Polling shows that the majority of voters support the Mexican wolf reintroduction.
  • The likelihood of a person being hurt by a wolf is almost non-existent. In rural areas, people are far more likely to be harmed by things accepted as part of daily life, such as domestic dogs, livestock, or off-road vehicles. Mexican wolves are small, weighing 50-85 pounds, and tend to avoid people.
  • Wolves generate economic benefits - a University of Montana study found that visitors who come to see wolves in Yellowstone contribute roughly $35.5 million annually to the regional economy.
Letter Writing Tips

Make sure you:
  • Thank the paper for publishing this article and make sure to reference it in your letter.
  • 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 said 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, no more than 200 words. Letters will be edited for space and clarity.
  • Include something about who you are and why you care: E.g. “I am a mother, outdoors person, teacher, business owner, scientific, religious, etc.” Don’t be afraid to be personal and creative.
  • 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 EDITOR OF THE ARIZONA DAILY STAR HERE.
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Don't stop now - Do MORE for Mexican wolves

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Learn More ...

Obstructionist policies that ignore scientific facts have been interfering with Mexican wolf recovery for many years.  Here are some past articles that highlight some of the history of the struggle to support a recovery plan based on science and not politics.