The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) introduced a proposal last year to remove gray wolves from the endangered species list. The move resulted in controversy when scientists and conservationists argued that the species has not yet recovered enough to lose protections.
Although the future of the gray wolf remains unclear if this proposal is passed, the FWS is requesting that protections be kept for one gray wolf subspecies: the Mexican wolf. The proposal makes Mexican wolves the only gray wolf not to lose endangered status in the lower 48 states. The FWS will maintain protection and expand recovery efforts for the subspecies in the Southwest, calling this wolf “the only remaining entity that warrants protection under the [Endangered Species] Act.”
The subspecies’ continued protection is viewed as a positive move, but some other changes to the recovery plan have conservationists worried.
On the Brink of Extinction
“Mexican wolves are critically endangered. At the end of 2012, there was a population count of only 75 in the wild in Arizona and New Mexico,” says Maggie Howell, executive director of the Wolf Conservation Center.
By the 1970s, this subspecies was extinct in the wild. They were bred in captivity and only reintroduced in 1998. Since then, the population has continued to struggle to survive. The Wolf Conservation Center currently has 13 Mexican wolves as a part of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association’s Species Survival Plan (SSP) Program and FWS Recovery Program. Over the years, some of their wolves have been released into the growing wild population, but Howell’s wolves have seen firsthand one of the biggest problems she says the subspecies faces: illegal killing.
“Two of our wolves, one released in 2006 and the other in 2008, from the center were killed just months after release,” she says.
According to Eva Sargent, Southwest program director for Defenders of Wildlife, the wolves are also suffering from inbreeding because the whole population was founded on just a few wolves. As a result, there is little genetic diversity in the group, and it’s made worse by wolves remaining in captivity for a long time.
“The overmanaged population is kept small, so they’ve lost a lot of genetic diversity. Genetic issues can be improved if more wolves are let into the wild from captivity, but that’s not happening,” Sargent says.
For the wolf to recover, scientists agree that there need to be three distinct populations of at least 750 wolves in the wild, but with these threats and some of the proposed changes, Howell and Sargent say we are far from reaching that goal.
The New Proposal
There are both positive and negative effects that the new FWS proposal will have on the subspecies. According to Sargent, wolves are currently allowed to move only within a small region of Arizona and New Mexico called the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area, but it will now be expanded into a slightly bigger range called the Mexican Wolf Experimental Population Area. It will also allow wolves to be released from captivity anywhere in this area, instead of restricting releases to one small section that previously slowed the process.
However, if wolves leave this area, they will be trapped and brought back into it. Sargent says this policy is limiting the population’s growth.
“The whole idea is that their numbers get larger and they disperse. You’re trading a little for the current population but undercutting the recovery in the long term,” Sargent says. “The habitats to support two additional populations needed are outside this box.”
Howell says that another problem is that the new proposal does not address the “nonessential experimental population” designation given to the Mexican wolf in 1998.
“This designation implies that if the current wolves were not to survive, it would not impact the recovery of the Mexican wolf because its genetics are represented in captivity,” she says. “It gives more leeway in terms of how people deal with this species. Most endangered species you are not allowed to kill or remove because they are so necessary to recovery, but because of the nonessential designation, [Mexican wolves] can be removed from the wild if they interfere with humans or industry.”
How to Help
Although the current public comment period on the FWS’s proposal has ended, you can still voice your opinion in this debate. According to Sargent, a new comment period will open in the coming months, along with more public hearings, when the FWS releases an Environmental Impact Statement based on the changes.
Howell recommends that people also reach out to their government representatives directly. And you can even join a social media campaign on Twitter — just use the hashtag #IAmEssential to voice your support of the Mexican wolf as an essential species that needs protection.
This article was posted to VetStreet on January 22, 2014.
Photo credit: Amber Legras