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Editorial: Lost Lobos - Could the Mexican wolf survive in southern Colorado?

Telluride Daily Planet - March 3, 2016

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Leslie Vreeland, Contributing Editor

It was 14 years ago, a summer night among the conifers. I’d enjoyed steak for dinner, cooked on a portable barbecue; afterwards, I tucked myself into my sleeping bag inside our Toyota truck.

It was warm out, and I’d left the tailgate down. If I hadn’t, I would have missed the dark gray, deeply ticked fur –– clearly the back of some animal –– standing at the edge of the T100, just six inches from my toes. “That is a tall dog,” I thought. And then: “What’s a husky” (the only breed I could conjure that fit the profile) “doing out here?” With that, the dog raised its head and I glimpsed its actual profile –– which included an unmistakably long nose. It was a wolf.

My own dog had been dozing inside my sleeping bag, also just a few inches from the wolf’s nose. Yet my story’s ending is anything but dramatic. There was no frantic lunge into the back of the truck by the wolf, followed by the shredding of a sleeping bag, the snapping of jaws, the triumphant carting away of a small West Highland terrier, its collar dangling between a predator’s teeth. No, all that happened was this.

I clapped my hands and said, “Go.”

The wolf did not.

I repeated “Go” a little louder, and more urgently.

Slowly, Canis lupus occidentalis ambled away.

I consider myself extremely lucky to have glimpsed a gray wolf on its own turf. We were camped on the edge of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, where, as a result of their reintroduction to Yellowstone National Park and Idaho in 1995, their numbers are thriving. David Parsons has worked on behalf of a subspecies of the gray wolf, Canis lupus baileyi, the so-called lobo, or Mexican gray, for nearly three decades, first as Wolf Recovery Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and today as a volunteer with several environmental groups. He’s tracked them via signals from their radio collars, and captured many in pens. But he has witnessed this most elusive of canines in the wild –– briefly, along the rim of a plateau in the heart of the Gila Wilderness, before it disappeared down the other side –– exactly once.


The Mexican gray originally roamed vast swaths of the southwestern U.S. and Mexico, but their numbers (as is the case with so many wolves) were severely depleted to the point of near extinction by trapping and the U.S. government’s extermination program in the first half of the 20th century. Beginning in 1998, as a result of the captive breeding program, they’ve been restored to a fraction of their former range in the so-called Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area, which stretches between the Gila National Forest in New Mexico and the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. There were 110 Mexican wolves in 2014; last year, according to a recently-released census by state and federal biologists, their numbers fell to 95. The decrease, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, one of several groups working to save the lobo from extinction, is likely a result of illegal killings, accidents (two animals died after they were captured to replace their radio collars) and something more insidious: their own small numbers. Every lobo that today traverses the Blue Range can trace its lineage to one of just seven individuals. The inbreeding has taken an inexorable toll: Of a total of 40 wolf pups believed to be born last spring, for example, little more than half survived.

That’s where Colorado comes in. Scientists working for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s wolf recovery group, which is in charge of preventing the wolf from becoming extinct, have said that in order for the lobos to survive, not only must their genetic diversity increase, but their geographic diversity has to as well. The agency’s scientists have recommended reintroducing the wolves to suitable habitat beyond southern Arizona and New Mexico, north of I-40 to the Mogollon Rim of Arizona, the Grand Canyon and Colorado’s southern San Juan Mountains.

The question remains whether the lobos will make it north. Despite what the agency’s scientists have recommended –– and opinion polls, which have repeatedly found the public in favor of reintroducing wolves to the wild –– on Nov. 13 of last year, the governors of Utah, New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado sent Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Director Daniel Ashe a letter stating that “while we support the completion of a [wolf] recovery plan...we do not support the recovery of the Mexican wolf across regions and landscapes that are not part of the subspecies’ historical range.” The letter was followed by another ominous announcement in January, when Colorado Parks & Wildlife approved a resolution (which is an opinion, not a law) opposing the Mexican wolf’s deliberate reintroduction to Colorado. “We’re not opposed to the wolves that come into our state (on their own), we have a history of the gray wolf coming into our state, they have historic range here,” CPW spokesman Matt Robbins said.

Given that the governors from the Four Corners states and the CPW have all cited it as a reason for excluding the lobo, the question is worth asking: How much does the Mexican wolf’s “historic range” really matter to its survival? The answer, according to scientists and environmentalists, is not at all. When the Four Corners states’ governors and CPW say “historic range,” they mean the wolf should be left to live in southern Arizona, New Mexico and Mexico. Yet as the USFWS pointed out in one of its own publications, a 2012 report entitled “North American Fauna,” there is controversy about the historical boundaries of the wolf’s range.

As biologist Steve Forrest, a senior representative for the Rockies & Plains Program of the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife puts it, “A great deal of the lobos’ historic range is lost to history.”

In fact, a group of researchers recently reported in the scientific journal Biological Conservation, evidence suggests the wolf’s historic range “is underestimated.” The investigators reported genetic evidence of a Mexican wolf as far west as California, and suggested it is likely that Mexican wolves and Rocky Mountain gray wolves mixed and interbred in Utah and Nebraska, two of Colorado’s neighboring states. Evidence of Mexican wolves has also been found in Texas and Oklahoma.

“Genetic evidence pretty clearly substantiates that the Mexican wolf did occur in Colorado,” said Delia Malone, of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the Sierra Club. More to the point, Malone said, “There is nothing in the Endangered Species Act (that) says a creature cannot be recovered in a range outside its historic area. What it does say is that the critter should be restored in an area where it can thrive, and in which there is a proper prey base,” which for wolves means deer and elk.

Adds Michael Robinson, Carnivore Conservation Director of the Center for Biological Diversity and the author of “Predatory Bureaucracy: The Extermination of Wolves and the Transformation of the West,” “The Mexican wolves’ best chance for recovery is beyond their historic range.”

Wolves are what scientists call a keystone species, meaning that they are crucial to other animals’ survival. They have been shown to be beneficial for habitat. Since the wolves’ reintroduction in Yellowstone, for example, their favored prey –– elk — have dispersed from the great herds they once gathered in. As a result, willow stands have flourished. And that has allowed beaver colonies to increase. (There was just one beaver colony in Yellowstone Park when the wolf was first reintroduced. Today, there are nine.) And that’s not all.

“Hawks, eagles and even songbirds’ habitats all benefit from the presence of wolves,” Malone said. She believes they could easily find a home here. “The San Juans, the Weminuche Wilderness and the La Garitas would all provide extremely productive habitat” for the lobos.

The people speak

It is one thing to acknowledge that wolves could find habitat in Colorado (proof of these predators’ wide-ranging ways: at least one northern gray has already found its way south from Wyoming all the way to the Grand Canyon). While polls have found the idea of releasing them is popular with the public, not everyone wants them here. Earlier this week, U.S. Fish & Wildlife biologists announced that they plan to release “several more captive-raised specimens” into the Gila National Forest over the coming months, according to a report in the Silver City Daily Press.

“The ranching and herding communities…have long claimed the reintroduction and recovery of the Mexican gray wolf is an attack on their livelihood, and have decried the program as potentially dangerous,” wrote reporter Benjamin Fisher. “These groups were predictably upset about the expansion of the reintroduction area. But the plan goes on.”

“You can’t just keep putting wolves on top of wolves,” a wolf-recovery team leader pointed out at the meeting. “At some point, they have to spread out.”

At some point too, perhaps more people will accept them. Landowners in five counties in North Carolina, for example, recently petitioned USFW Director Ashe to keep the endangered red wolf on their land (according to the Animal Welfare Institute, more than 110,000 comments have been submitted in support of the red wolf’s recovery program, from both in and out of state).

“There’s no doubt that there’s tons of room for wolves” in the San Juans, Forrest, of the Defenders of Wildlife, said. “Think of Italy: It’s very densely populated and highly agriculturalized, and it has few national parks and national forest land. Yet wolves carry on there, and they do so largely without conflict with people.”

Livestock husbandry practices are different in Italy, he pointed out –– and aspects of these practices could potentially be adopted in the U.S.

Ultimately, the Mexican wolf’s survival will depend not just on the public’s collective will, but on the law being carried out. That means the law’s enforcers must do their jobs. Despite the Fish & Wildlife Service’s pledge to add more Mexican wolves to the wild and expand their range, the agency has dragged its feet for decades regarding its own recovery plan.

“When Fish & Wildlife doesn’t like their own recommendations, they form another [wolf recovery] group. That’s what they’ve done twice now,” said Kim Crumbo, western conservation director for Wildlands Network.

Make that thrice: a lawsuit filed in 2014 by Earthjustice charges that “three times since 1982” the FWS has initiated recovery plans for the Mexican wolf, “but each time halted these processes before completion.” The FWS’s “repeated refusals to complete a recovery plan” for the wolf, “despite receiving expert guidance from top minds in the field, demonstrates the need for judicial intervention to enforce compliance with federal law.”

Earthjustice’s legal work may be gaining traction. In December, according to the draft notes of a Mexican Wolf Recovery Planning Workshop meeting that brought together representatives of FWS, the Four Corners states and Colorado Parks and Wildlife, a member of the USFWS said, “We expect the final wolf recovery plan to be complete by the end of 2017, contingent upon a possible litigation settlement” (a reference to lawsuits filed by Earthjustice). Ultimately, said author Michael Robinson, the Mexican wolf’s recovery may not depend on what ranchers or hunters might prefer. (“If they don’t want the wolf to be reintroduced, that’s okay,” he said. “What they want might not necessarily be best for the ecosystem.”) Instead, it will rest on what the public on the whole would like to see, and more importantly, on the federal government following the law which obliges it to complete a plan for restoring this most fragile of species. Said Robinson, “Our lawsuit gives me hope.”

Later this month, Kim Crumbo of the Wildlands Network will head south to New Mexico for a walk with former FWS wolf recovery manager Dave Parsons. There, the man who has witnessed but one wolf in the wild, yet spent most of his professional life trying to save them, will lead his compatriot, who also devotes himself to bringing the lobos back from the brink of extinction, into the heart of the Blue Range wilderness.

To ensure the lobos’ survival, Crumbo said, “is why we’re all working so hard.”

And of the wolves themselves: “I will see them.”

This Editorial was published in the Telluride Daily Planet.

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Letter to the Editor Talking Points
  • The commission’s anti-wolf stance is also an anti-citizen stance.  Coloradoans overwhelmingly support wolf reintroductions.
  • Coloradans value healthy landscapes and healthy wildlife populations, and that includes the important but now-absent role of wolves in the environment.
  • Recent polling shows that 70% of Coloradans support the state restoring wolves in Colorado wilderness areas.
  • Scientists have determined that the lobo used to range into southern Colorado and that Colorado is absolutely necessary for the recovery of these rare wolves.
  • Mexican gray wolves need Colorado, and Colorado needs wolves.
  • The Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission is a major impediment to wolf recovery in Colorado, which has some of the best remaining suitable habitat for wolves in the Lower-48.
  • The Parks and Wildlife Commission needs to represent all of us who respect Colorado’s wild lands and wildlife, not just hunters and oil and gas interests.
  • Ranchers throughout the West are learning how to live with wolves. Non-lethal tools -- guard dogs, strobe lights, electric fencing – can be more effective and sustainable than lethal tools – aerial gunning, hunting and trapping – in preventing wolf and livestock conflicts.
  • There are plenty of programs – federal, state and private, to help ranchers reduce conflicts with wolves and other predators.
  • It’s good to hear from a hunter who values intact ecosystems and the predators as well as the prey.
  • Wolf restoration is far more likely to boost the economy and enhance the ecological diversity of Colorado rather than upend it.
  • Wolves are important predators that contribute to the health of the ecosystems they inhabit. Predators like wolves tend to hunt and cull old, sick and injured deer, elk and other grazers. This keeps these prey populations healthy and enhances the health and diversity of the plants other wildlife need to thrive.

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DO EVEN MORE FOR MEXICAN WOLVES

Tell US Fish and Wildlife Service-Lobos need improved genetics and a science based recovery plan!

Please urge Secretary Jewell and Director Ashe to stop letting the states inject politics into recovery planning and to move forward with the scientists' draft recommendations.

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