Lobos of the Southwest

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Fish and Wildlife Needs to Get with the Pack

Discussion of the Bush administration's failures to protect and restore imperiled wildlife under the Endangered Species Act

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Albuquerque Journal
June 1, 2008

By David Parsons
Wildlife Biologist

As the former coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Mexican gray wolf recovery program, I felt especially privileged to open the gates a decade ago to release the first Mexican gray wolves back into the wild. We had high hopes, imagining the day when hundreds of lobos would roam their former territory, bringing natural balance back to these Southwestern wildlands.

On May 21, I testified before the House Natural Resources Committee in Washington, D.C., about the plight of Mexican gray wolves. Dave’s testimony.

My testimony was part of a broader discussion of the Bush administration’s failures to protect and restore imperiled wildlife under the Endangered Species Act. The near extinction of Mexican wolves and the heroic efforts to bring them back is a classic story of America’s commitment to restore endangered wildlife. It’s also a tale whose last chapters have yet to be written, for despite all of our efforts, Mexican gray wolves have but a tenuous toehold in the Southwest and need immediate help to ensure their long-term recovery.

The epitome of wildness, Mexican gray wolves roamed the American Southwest freely until a federal predator-control program wiped them out about 80 years ago. After that, the lobo’s howl no longer broke the silence of the night.

A captive population traceable to just seven surviving wolves was all that was left when we decided to return them to the wild. The lobo’s comeback is one of the Endangered Species Act’s many success stories and illustrates a new American ethic toward the value of wildlife and natural areas.

The Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area, 4.4 million acres comprising the Apache and Gila National Forests, and teeming with elk and deer, was identified by wildlife biologists as the best place to begin the repatriation of Mexican wolves to their homelands. The recovery objective was to establish a viable, self-sustaining, wild population of at least 100 lobos in the recovery area by the end of 2006, eight years after the first releases.

It was a great disappointment to me to report to the House Committee on Natural Resources that this remarkable effort has experienced serious setbacks. Over 10 years after the first releases, we are confronted with the reality and consequences of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that is still stuck in a predator-control mentality. In 2007, the service killed or removed 20 endangered Mexican gray wolves from the wild, causing this small and vulnerable population to suffer its third decline in four years. Only 52 wolves and three breeding pairs were left in the wild at the end of 2007.

Wolves are intelligent, family-oriented animals. Shooting and trapping them disrupts packs, separates mated pairs and can leave pups without parents. As a wildlife biologist, I am troubled that while the future of wild wolves rests on the survival and future reproduction of just three breeding pairs and 52 wild wolves, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service continues its outdated policies of shooting and trapping wolves that come into conflict with livestock.

Wolves are an essential part of the balance of nature. They keep elk and deer herds healthy by ensuring the fittest animals survive. Public opinion polls have consistently shown strong public support for wolf recovery in the Southwest.

As I explained to the House committee, it is time for the Fish and Wildlife Service and its partner agencies to implement modern practices and policies in keeping with modern public values to stave off the second extinction of lobos in the wild.

David Parsons is a professional wildlife biologist, the former Mexican Wolf Recovery Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (1990-1999), and currently the Carnivore Conservation Biologist for the Rewilding Institute, an Albuquerque-based conservation think tank.