Martinez’s Department of Game and Fish sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in May, obtaining an injunction barring the federal agency from releasing wolves into the wild in the state. The federal government and conservation organizations have appealed that injunction but, while the appeal is being decided, the Mexican wolf’s genetic plight is worsening.
The wolf population living in the Gila National Forest of southwestern New Mexico and the adjoining Apache National Forest and Fort Apache Indian Reservation of eastern Arizona was reintroduced to the wild in 1998 — thanks to the Endangered Species Act — after the U.S. government had trapped and poisoned all the wolves in the West and most in Mexico between 1915 and the 1960s.
Six wolves in Mexico and one in Arizona survived to be captured alive and bred to prevent their extinction.
But the reintroduction was mismanaged to appease the livestock industry for which the wolves were originally exterminated. Since 1999, the U.S. government has shot 14 wolves and accidentally killed 21 others as a result of capture. Dozens more have been successfully trapped or darted from the air and taken into captivity, including two last month in Arizona. Meanwhile, releases into the wild have long been curtailed.
Now, each wolf in the population is related to every other wolf as if they were siblings. That is leading to fewer pups being born and fewer surviving to adulthood.
At last count a year ago, the wild wolf population in southwestern New Mexico and eastern Arizona included just six breeding pairs and a total of 97 wolves. When reintroduction began, 18 breeding pairs were projected to live in the wild by 2006, and the numbers were expected to rise above that. Results from a just-completed census will be released this week.
Since 2001, scientists have pushed for the pace of wolf releases to increase significantly — beyond the 50 released during the Clinton administration — to diversify the population. While the Bush administration released just 42 wolves, that number dwarfs the 10 wolves the Obama administration released, the majority of which are now dead or back in captivity.
The captive-breeding program conserved the genetic heritage from the small founding population of just seven animals and now supports 251 wolves — unfortunately, many too old to breed. But family packs could and should still be released (and all the wolves should be better protected in the wild).
In 2015, in response to a 2004 petition that I authored and two follow-up lawsuits by the Center for Biological Diversity, where I work, the Fish and Wildlife Service gave itself the authority to release captive-bred wolves into the Gila National Forest. But Martinez’s injunction has temporarily invalidated that authority.
Mexican gray wolves are uniquely adapted to our arid region and are genetically distinct from northern gray wolves. Their survival and the health of the Gila ecosystem are at stake. The governor’s blockade on wolf releases needs to end.
Michael Robinson represents the Center for Biological Diversity in Silver City, and is author of Predatory Bureaucracy: The Extermination of Wolves and the Transformation of the West (University Press of Colorado, 2005).
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.
Letter Writing Tips & Talking Points
• Time is running out for the Mexican gray wolf. Governor Martinez needs to stop blocking science based recovery and listen to her voters. By not allowing releases of wolves into the wild, she is driving the lobo to extinction.
• Inbreeding is causing lower pup litters and lower survival rates for pups. The genetic problems Mexican wolves are experiencing can easily be relieved by releases of captive wolves to the wild, but Governor Martinez’s game commission has blocked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from doing its job to recover the lobo. They should stop blocking science-based recovery.
• The captive population of Mexican gray wolves has enough genetic diversity that more releases of wolves could save the wild population from inbreeding, but more releases must happen, and quickly.
• A majority of voters in New Mexico want to the recovery program to succeed. Governor Martinez would gain more support from voters by working with the recovery program, rather than against it. In a 2013 poll of registered voters, 87% of both Arizonans and New Mexicans agreed that “wolves are a vital part of America’s wilderness and natural heritage.” 83% of Arizonans and 80% of New Mexicans agreed that “the US Fish and Wildlife Service should make every effort to help wolves recover and prevent extinction.”
• 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 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s plan to release only two families in 2017 is sadly inadequate to the need to increase the numbers and genetic health of endangered lobos in the wild.
• 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.
• We have a moral, economic and scientific responsibility to restore endangered species like the Mexican gray wolf.
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, under 150 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.