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Op-Ed: Wolf miracle in NM was not thanks to state government

Las Cruces Sun-News - June 12, 2016

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By Kevin Bixby

The eyes of the conservation world were on New Mexico recently as biologists placed two endangered Mexican wolf pups – so young that their eyes were still closed – into a litter of wild wolves, deep in the Gila National Forest.

It was the end of a remarkable journey that began hundreds of miles away at the Endangered Wolf Center in St. Louis, Missouri, where the pups had been born nine days earlier. The animals were chosen for their unique genetic makeup, and the hope was that they would be accepted and raised by their new family, eventually producing offspring of their own.

Getting wild wolves to raise captive-born pups is a tricky business. It’s known as cross-fostering, and it has never been tried with Mexican wolves before. As the Wolf Center’s Regina Mossotti says, “Not only do the stars have to align, but the moon and the planets, too.” But with only 100 or so lobos still living in the wild, it is a risk that needs to be taken. Biologists say that infusing new genes into the wild population through cross-fostering and direct releases of paired adult wolves is urgently needed prevent the animals’ extinction.

Happily, it seems to be working this time. The pups appear to have been adopted by their new wild parents.

Saint Francis of Assisi would have been proud. As the story goes, he miraculously brokered a pact between the town of Gubbio and the wolf that was said to be terrorizing it. Often overlooked in the telling of this medieval parable is that the offending wolf was motivated by hunger, not malice. Peace was only achieved after Francis acknowledged the wolf’s needs and pledged to provide for the animals.

In modern terms, we might acknowledge the wolves’ needs by admitting that the animals need enough room to roam and that they have an intrinsic right to exist. These are things that humans too often deny to the millions of other species with which we share the planet.

As Pope Francis has said, “Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us.” Both the saint and his contemporary namesake might view bringing two wolf pups to the wilds of New Mexico to save a subspecies as the Miracle of Gubbio: Part Two.

But New Mexico officials don’t seem to see it that way. The state’s Department of Game and Fish threatened to take the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to court to prevent releases of wolves in the state. To its credit, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did the right thing and released wolves anyway. Since then it has placed more pups with wild wolf families in Arizona.

State officials say their gripe is over legal issues – “states’ rights” – and not opposition to wolves themselves. But that statement is suspect. The Fish and Game Department, the commission that oversees it, and Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, who appointed the Game Commission, have demonstrated ample times that they don’t want wolves in New Mexico.

Shortly after Martinez was elected, for example, the state withdrew as a partner in the lobo recovery program. Then state officials began denying permits to import and release wolves, though such permits had been routinely issued in the past. More recently, Martinez joined with the governors of neighboring states in declaring their opposition to allowing wolves to expand into areas that biologists say are essential to the animals’ long-term survival.

Even though the state is unlikely to prevail if it goes to court to stop additional wolf releases, a lawsuit could cause damaging delays. The loss of genetic diversity is a one-way ticket to extinction, and the only way to reverse it is to release more wolves, with different genes, before it is too late.

Ironically, throwing up roadblocks to wolf recovery simply puts one of the officials’ goals further out of reach. Throughout the West, state officials insist that they want and deserve control over wolves. But their actions only postpone the day when the Mexican wolf is declared recovered and taken off the federal endangered list. And that is something that has to happen before management can be turned over to New Mexico. Where other states, such as Idaho, have taken over management, the usual response has been aggressive hunting and trapping to reduce wolf numbers. There’s no reason to think New Mexico wouldn’t do the same thing.

For now, keeping wolves under federal management is fine with the majority of New Mexicans who welcome wolves and want them to thrive here.

Kevin Bixby is executive director of the Southwest Environmental Center. A version of this essay originally appeared in High Country News.

This Op-Ed was published in the Las Cruces Sun-News.

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Show your support for Mexican gray wolves
with a letter to the editor today!


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 Tips & Talking Points

  • The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a legal and moral obligation to follow the best available science and do what is needed to recover endangered Mexican gray wolves in spite of politically motivated state opposition.
  • At last official count, only 97 Mexican gray wolves were found in the wild, making them one of the most endangered wolves in the world. The wild population declined 12% since last year’s count.
  • The wild population of Mexican wolves is at tremendous risk due to its small size and genetics. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s plan to release only one new family from the hundreds of wolves in captive breeding programs is entirely inadequate to the need for genetic rescue. At least five new families should be released this year. The Service’s plan is actually passive-aggressive, pretending to help the wolves but again giving in to the states.
  • Cross-fostering of pups is a risky and complex experimental technique. Opportunities for doing this successfully are extremely rare. At best, the Fish and Wildlife Service may be able to get a few new pups into wild packs. At worst, pups introduced into packs they were not born into may be killed or abandoned. A scientific genetic rescue plan will involve releasing many more adult wolves, not just cross-fostering.
  • 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.
  • For almost 4 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.  Only four new wolves have been released in the past eight years and only one family will be released in 2016, after a 12% decline in the wild population.
  • The livestock industry has a responsibility to share public lands with wolves and other wildlife. Wolves are responsible for less than 1% of livestock losses and there are many tried and true methods to avoid conflicts between livestock and wolves. Most wolves stay out of trouble.
  • Wolves are a benefit to the West and are essential to restoring the balance of nature.
  • Scientists 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.
  • 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.
  • In a 2013 poll of registered voters, 87% of New Mexicans agreed that “wolves are a vital part of America’s wilderness and natural heritage.”  80% of New Mexicans agreed that “the US Fish and Wildlife Service should make every effort to help wolves recover and prevent extinction.”  In thinking about wolf reintroduction, 73% of New Mexicans supported restoring wolves to the Grand Canyon region and northern New Mexico.

Make sure you:

  • Thank the paper for publishing the article.
  • 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 from the article, 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, between 150-350 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.

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DO MORE FOR WOLVES

Tell US Fish and Wildlife Service not to let anti-wolf state officials obstruct Mexican wolf recovery.

Please email a letter directly to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Director Dan Ashe and Regional Director Dr. Benjamin Tuggle.

A sample message is below-remember that it will be most effective written in your own words, from your own experience.

Dear Director Ashe,

Mexican gray wolves are important to me and the majority of voters, and their recovery can help restore ecological health to our wildlands. Only four wolves have been released into the wild since 2009 and this year, the wild population declined for the first time in six years, from 110 wolves last year to only 97.
The longer the wild population goes without new releases, the worse the problems will become, requiring even more wolf releases in the future.

Instead of allowing political interference by the states of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah, the US Fish and Wildlife Service must expedite the release of adults and families of wolves from captivity and must move forward with  the draft recovery plan based on the work of the science planning subgroup.

Obstruction by anti-wolf special interests and politics has kept this small population of unique and critically endangered wolves at the brink of extinction for too long and can no longer be allowed to do so.  Development of a new recovery plan and expedited releases that will together address decreased genetic health and ensure long-term resiliency in Mexican wolf populations must move forward without delay or political interference.


Sincerely,

[Your name and address]


You can make your letter more compelling by talking about your personal connection to wolves and why the issue is important to you.  If you’re a camper or hiker wanting to hear wolves in the wild, or a hunter who recognizes that wolves make game herds healthier, or a businessperson who knows that wolves have brought millions in ecotourism dollars to Yellowstone, say so.

Please email a letter to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Director Dan Ashe and Regional Director Dr. Benjamin Tuggle.

Thank you for adding your voice on behalf of these important animals who cannot speak for themselves.