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In the News: Should Mexican Gray Wolf Be Cared For By States Or Federal Government?

ABC15.com, September 25, 2011 (posted 9-27-11)

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PHOENIX - Each Sunday, ABC15.com debuts an Arizona issue - along with two opposing sides on the topic. …

This week we’re tackling the debate on whether or not the future of the Mexican gray wolf, or the lobo as it is called, should be left in the hands of state governments or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. …

Eva Sargent, Southwest program director and wolf expert for Defenders of Wildlife, argues that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has and continues to be a vital partner in the recovery efforts of the Mexican Gray Wolf. She calls out lawmakers for attempting to defund the recovery program at the federal level. According to Sargent, people are the biggest threat to the lobo.

Patrick Bray is the Executive Vice President of the Arizona Cattle Grower’s Association. He argues the program should be managed by state partners like the Arizona Department of Game and Fish, saying that once the original recovery goal of 100 wild wolves is reached, the federal government should de-list the lobo from the endangered species list. …

“How can we better coexist with them?”

By Eva Sargent, Southwest program director and wolf expert for Defenders of Wildlife

Wolves aren’t soft and cuddly. It’s true. They’re not like our pet dogs. And even though they share almost all of their genes with Fido, they certainly belong more in the wild than in your living room. But these magnificent mammals aren’t the toothy villains found in fairytales, either. They tend to keep a safe distance from people – preying mainly on elk and deer, like any other large predator. And they play a vital role in maintaining the balance of nature.

In the Southwest, the Mexican gray wolf, or the lobo, is highly endangered. A small population of around just 50 Mexican gray wolves in Arizona and New Mexico is all that’s left of wild lobos in the entire world. From the late-1800s through the mid-1900s, Mexican gray wolves were routinely hunted down and killed, even tortured. By the early 1970s, they were nearly driven to extinction.

The last hope for the lobo’s survival hinged on a few wolves captured in Mexico between 1977 and 1980 and bred in captivity. In 1998, when the only Mexican gray wolves left were in zoos and breeding centers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released 11 descendants of those last lobos into the wild. Since then, they’ve done what wolves do: They’ve established packs, raised pups and hunted prey. Although their numbers have slowly grown, lobos are still in trouble.

The problem seems to be people. The Fish and Wildlife Service reports that 37 wolves have died from illegal shootings, a dozen have been struck by vehicles and two more died in traps set for other animals. Worse yet, politicians are now taking aim at endangered lobos. U.S. Representative Steve Pearce has repeatedly tried to defund the Mexican wolf recovery program, relying on laughably false information about the dangers wolves pose to justify his case. And New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez has joined Pearce’s three-ring circus, allowing her state’s wildlife agency to walk away from the recovery effort.

Despite all this, there are signs of hope. The Fish and Wildlife Service is working on releasing more wolves into the wild, adding genetic diversity to strengthen the population. And it also has assembled a team of scientists and stakeholders – including conservationists, livestock interests and tribes – who are at work on a new recovery plan to help grow wolf numbers in the Southwest.

It’s a good thing, too. Biologists are just beginning to understand how important wolves and other top predators are to maintaining balance in nature. Wolves are nature’s wildlife managers, and they are a key to the healthy lands enjoyed by hunters, backpackers and birdwatchers alike. Research shows that wolves in Yellowstone have had a positive effect on the environment. They have discouraged elk from over indulging on young aspen saplings near streams and rivers. Allowed to grow, these trees now provide habitat for birds and their roots control soil erosion along the riverbanks, improving water quality and biodiversity. In addition, a strong wildlife-watching tourism industry has sprung up around Yellowstone’s wolves. Experts believe that when Mexican gray wolves return to healthy numbers they will bring the same benefits to the Southwest’s wild lands.

Fortunately, most residents of the Southwest are able to see through the nonsense and are willing to share our public lands with lobos. Indeed, a 2008 poll showed that 77 percent of Arizonans supported the Mexican wolf recovery effort. And while the wolf continues its path toward recovery, Defenders of Wildlife, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Arizona Game and Fish Department continue to work alongside ranchers, using proven techniques like range riders and fladry – brightly colored flags tied to fences that frighten wolves – to decrease conflicts between livestock and lobos. For many of us in the West, it’s no longer a question of whether we have wolves or no wolves, but rather how can we better coexist with them. And that’s good news for both wolves and people.
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Editor’s Note: The original ABC15 post implied that 100 wolves is the recovery goal for Mexican gray wolves; it is not. Wildlife managers aimed for a short-term goal of 100 wolves in the wild by 2006, but additional populations and much higher numbers of wolves must be achieved before the Mexican wolf can be considered recovered. You can read the full article, including the anti-wolf position from the AZ Cattlegrower’s Association, and post a comment, here.

Photo courtesy of Trisha Shears