Forty years after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service first listed the Mexican gray wolf under the Endangered Species Act, this iconic creature remains in danger of extinction. Its recovery should be much further along. Instead, the wolf population in the wild dropped from 110 last year to just 97 in 2016.
These declining numbers make the actual anniversary, April 28, less a moment to celebrate than one to rededicate efforts to save the lobo. The federal government must do more to stop states such as New Mexico and Arizona from blocking reintroduction of wolves in the wild.
Shamefully, just as the 40th anniversary was approaching, the state of New Mexico announced it would sue the federal government over its bold decision to release captive wolves despite state refusal to permit the reintroductions. The feds were correct in deciding to ignore an overly political state process and should prevail in court.
The service, despite New Mexico’s roadblocks, had announced it would release a pack of wolves this year and also was considering placing captive-born pups in wild packs. These moves are necessary to improve genetic diversity for wolves, which increases their survival chances. New Mexico is claiming such releases, without permits, would violate state law. We have argued before, and do again, that state officials are wrong to block reintroduction. Without a broader gene pool, extinction could be just around the corner. The goal of preserving the wolf must remain clearly in sight.
Otherwise, decades of work by so many to save the wolves could be lost. Before the campaign of extermination, wolves were plentiful in the American Southwest. But by 1976, Mexican gray wolves had disappeared from the United States and roamed only in Mexico. A captive breeding program started in the 1980s, and wolves were reintroduced into the wild starting in 1998. A handful of wolves bred in captivity became the ancestors of all Mexican gray wolves alive today. Extinction has been avoided — for now.
Poor decision-making over the years means the wolf still is not secure. Yet a vibrant wolf population could help bring back balance to ecosystems in the Southwest, biologists believe. Because wolves go after the old, sick and young, animal populations are strengthened and numbers kept at a healthy level. That prevents overgrazing and destruction of habitat for other creatures. Balance, in other words, is restored.
The release of captive lobos — who have genes that are missing in the wild population — would improve genetic diversity and give the wolves a fighting chance at survival. To make the releases happen, Fish and Wildlife officials must fight state pressure; that’s why the decision to move ahead with New Mexico releases despite the state’s refusal to issue permits is noteworthy. More captive releases are essential (there have been only four new Mexican gray wolves let go since 2009). Sadly, three of the releases are dead and the fourth is back in captivity.
But releases are just a beginning. Wolves need a wider recovery area, free of artificial limits placed upon them. Rules limiting the wild Mexican gray wolf population to 325 animals are too low — Fish and Wildlife’s own scientists have found that at least 750 wolves and a wider geographic range are necessary to move the species toward recovery. We need science, not emotion, to lead.
By ignoring politics, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can make decisions that will improve the survival odds of the Mexican gray wolf. Release more wolves from captivity. Expand the wolves’ range. Use the support of citizens — a majority of voters in New Mexico and Arizona polled want to see two new lobo populations established — to make these goals reality.
While there needs to be protection for ranchers worried about cattle losses, such concerns can’t be allowed to hound the wolf into extinction. State interests more concerned about big cattle than the lobo must no longer dominate the discussion, else the wolf will fade to black. The lobo is an icon of the West. Listing the species in 1976 saved it, but that reprieve will prove temporary without a more vigorous recovery plan. On this 40th anniversary of the wolf’s stay of execution, the country needs to rededicate itself to preserving this essential species.
This editorial was published in the Santa Fe New Mexican and reflects the opinion of the newspaper.
Photo courtesy of Trisha Shears
Please help endangered Mexican gray wolves with a letter to the editor today!
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 and talking points for writing your letter are below, but please write in your own words, from your own experience. Don’t try to include all of the points below. Your letter will be effective if you keep it brief and focus on a few key points.
Letter Writing Tips & Talking Points
- It has now been 40 years since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service first listed the Mexican gray wolf, or “lobo,” under the Endangered Species Act.
- 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 wild population declined 12% since last year’s count. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s plan to release only one family in 2016 is sadly inadequate to the need to increase the numbers and genetic health of endangered lobos in the wild.
- The wild population of Mexican wolves is at tremendous risk due to its small size and genetics. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s plan to release only one new family from the hundreds of wolves in captive breeding programs is entirely inadequate to the need for genetic rescue. At least five new families should be released this year.
- The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is allowing politics to override science based recommendations for wolf recovery. Right now, the Service has a plan to trap and remove a father wolf over livestock as soon as his mate has pups, without any requirement for livestock owners to actively protect their livestock from depredations.
- Those who don’t want to see these unique native wolves go extinct should join the Rally for More Wolves, Less Politics on April 28th in Albuquerque. More information is at mexicanwolves.org.
- Since the lobo reintroduction program began in the late 1990s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has never released enough wolves from captivity, not only impeding a steady increase in the lobos’ numbers but also triggering a continual loss of genetic diversity in the wild lobo population over the past 18 years.
- The US Fish and Wildlife Service should stop letting anti-wolf state officials obstruct wolf recovery. The last effort to create a Mexican wolf recovery plan stalled precisely because the states were given opportunities to weigh in before the work of the scientific experts was released for public comment. The most recent recovery planning process, which began in 2011, ended amidst allegations of political interference by these same states with the science.
- During the entire Obama administration (2009 to present), only four new wolves have been released from captivity. Of these, three are dead and one has been returned to captivity. The longer the wild population goes without new releases, the worse the problems will become, requiring even more wolf releases in the future.
- No matter how you measure it, there are clear, concrete repercussions to the dwindling genetic diversity in the wild. We are seeing smaller litters, lower pup survival and the population is less able to adapt over time to changing conditions.
- Wolf releases from captivity are necessary to improve the all-around health of the wild Mexican gray wolf population, in terms of both their genetics and their numbers.
- Cross-fostering of pups is a risky and complex experimental technique. Opportunities for doing this successfully are extremely rare. At best, the Fish and Wildlife Service may be able to get a few new pups into wild packs. At worst, pups introduced into packs they were not born into may be killed or abandoned. A scientific genetic rescue plan will involve releasing many more adult wolves, not just cross-fostering.
- Time is running out for the Mexican gray wolf. The Service must immediately release multiple families of wolves from captivity to beat the clock of lobo extinction.
- The captive population still has genes not represented in the wild population. Therefore, releases from this population would help increase the genetic diversity in the wild population.
Make sure you:
- Thank the paper for publishing the editorial.
- 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, 150 words or less.
- 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.