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Legacy of a lost wolf

Mexican wolves remain one of the most endangered mammals in North America

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By Betsy Karasik

Many years ago, at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, I had my first and only encounter with a live Mexican gray wolf. It was one of the most exquisite animals I had ever seen. Mexican gray wolves are the smallest wolf species in North America, weighing between 60 and 90 pounds. They have a dainty physique, a luxuriant coat and a thick ruff. I remember watching the lone wolf, bored and lethargic, and reading with poignant regret the plaque informing visitors that these wolves were extinct in the wild in the United States, though a few were believed to survive in Mexico. They remain one of the most endangered mammals in North America.

In the past century, ranchers, farmers and various government agencies waged a "successful" campaign against the Mexican gray wolf, shooting, trapping and poisoning the wolves until they were all but erased from the North American landscape. An international program to bring the wolves back from the brink of extinction resulted in Mexican gray wolves being raised in captivity. Eleven of these were released into the wild in Arizona and New Mexico on March 29, 1998. I followed their cautious and controversial reintroduction with excitement, wondering whether I would ever be fortunate enough to see one. But my hopes dimmed as the program suffered setback upon setback and the population failed to rebound.

The traditional diet of Mexican gray wolves consists of javelina (wild pigs), deer, rabbits and other small mammals, but some also prey on cattle. Some experts believe that the wolves acquire a taste for cattle because they encounter the carcasses of cows and calves that die naturally and are not removed. In Western states, ranchers run cattle on hundreds of millions of acres of federal lands, supported by subsidies that as of 2005, according to a Government Accountability Office report, cost American taxpayers $123 million annually. Most disturbing to me is the Agriculture Department's euphemistically titled "Wildlife Services" program, also operated largely for the benefit of ranchers. In 2008, this program exterminated 124,414 carnivores such as bears, wolves, foxes, coyotes, bobcats, raccoons and cougars via cruel methods including leghold traps, aerial shooting and poisoning.

On July 5, 2007, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials shot a female Mexican gray wolf in Catron County, N.M. The wolf, called AF (alpha female) 924, was part of the reintroduced population inhabiting a tiny portion of the wolves' former range along the New Mexico-Arizona border. AF924 and her mate, AM923, had four pups to feed, and so they killed a cow and calf. With that maternal act, AF924 violated the "three strikes" rule, which required "permanent removal" of any wolf linked to three livestock killings during a year. For this she received the death sentence.

The "three strikes" rule was enforced against AF924 despite the fact that she was a critically endangered breeding female, and even though ranchers are compensated for cattle they lose to wolf predation. But the shot that killed AF924 resonated throughout the environmental community and beyond. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson called for protocol changes in the Mexican wolf reintroduction program, and environmental groups sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. On Nov. 13, the parties reached a new management agreement that ended the "three strikes" rule.

There is no assurance that the new plan will be successful, and there remain many obstacles to the wolves' recovery. At the last count in January, there were only two breeding pairs among the 52 wild Mexican gray wolves in Arizona and New Mexico. I may never see a Mexican gray wolf in the wild. But one lethal loop of red tape has been cut. And somewhere in the desert Southwest, a tiny population of exceedingly rare and beautiful wolves continues to defy the label: "extinct in the wild."

Betsy Karasik is an artist and writer living in Washington.

This story appeared on December 27, 2009, in the Washington Post. Click here to post a comment in support of wolf recovery