Forty years after receiving protection under the Endangered Species Act, the Mexican gray wolf remains one of the most endangered mammals in North America and the most endangered subspecies of gray wolf in the world.
Following the Mexican gray wolf listing as an endangered species in 1976, the United States and Mexico collaborated to capture all lobos remaining in the wild. This extreme measure prevented the lobos’ extinction. Five wild Mexican wolves (four males and one pregnant female) were captured alive in Mexico from 1977 to 1980 and used to start a captive breeding program. The captive population is managed for maximum genetic integrity by experts with the Mexican Wolf Species Survival Plan.
Planning for Recovery
The out-of-date Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan, approved in 1982, called for the continued propagation of Mexican wolves in captivity and for the re-establishment of two viable populations in the wild in Mexico and/or adjoining areas of the United States through reintroduction, as a first step toward eventual recovery.
Following nearly two decades of captive breeding and reintroduction planning, approval for the first releases of Mexican wolves to the wild was granted by Secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbitt, in 1997. The plan was to re-establish a population of at least 100 Mexican wolves in an area referred to as the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area by the end of 2006. It was expected that the target population would include 18 breeding pairs at that point in time.
The Recovery Area spans 98.5 million acres, which includes 20.5 million acres of suitable habitat, over nine times the size of Yellowstone National Park.
Wolves have done what is needed to thrive in the wild: They have formed packs, had pups and successfully hunted elk and deer.
Unfortunately, the recovery effort did not reach the first reintroduction objective of at least 100 wolves in the wild until the end of 2014, with a high of 110. However, the 2015 year-end count was just 97 in the wild, marking the first time in 6 years that the wild population had declined. The population grew again in 2016, to 113 wolves, but still with only 6 breeding pairs. In 2021, only 196 wild wolves were counted in the U.S..
With so few wolves, each member of a pack is important.
Restoring Mexican gray wolves will restore an important ecological player to the Southwest’s wild areas. To ensure they thrive in the wild, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must give Mexican wolves higher protections, release new wolves from captivity, and keep wolves in the wild.
In 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finalized a flawed recovery plan for the Mexican wolf that does not give the wolf the critical blueprint it needs to avoid extinction. The recovery plan arbitrarily restricts wolves south of Interstate 40, simply to appease local political players. It relies much too heavily on a new population in Mexico and plans for the two populations to remain artificially separated and unable to interbreed naturally. Scientists have called for three populations with connecting corridors, including a new population in the Southern Rockies and another in the Grand Canyon area. Furthermore, they’ve called for around double the population size the recovery plan calls for (750 wolves as opposed to 320 in the U.S.). During the recovery planning process, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ignored the recommendations of the best available science, they ignored the comments on the plans by expert scientists, and they ignored over 100,000 public comments, 99% of which called for more protections for wolves.