By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN Associated Press
SEVILLETA NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, N.M.—Miles from the nearest rural outpost and far beyond the smatterings of broken down cars that have been left to rust into the central New Mexico prairie is a narrow canyon at the edge of the Los Pinos Mountains.
This rugged stretch is ground zero for the federal government’s effort to return the endangered Mexican gray wolf to the wild in the Southwest.
Here, behind an elaborate maze of fencing and locked gates are nearly two dozen wolves, many of them waiting for a chance to be released. However, the odds are stacked against them. First there’s politics. Then comes a strict set of requirements for the right genetics and the right location.
“Every Mexican wolf has a chance to go into the wild. That’s the purpose of all the captive animals,” Susan Dicks, a biologist and veterinarian with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said as she negotiated the rough two-track road leading up to the wolf pens.
“Sometimes, we’re all lined up for a release and then politically, the stars don’t align,” she said. “That can be years of work.”
Dicks along with a team of other biologists, volunteers and students spent the day Wednesday at the wolf management center at Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge. Their mission was to capture four female wolves, vaccinate them and do a quick checkup.
The work is all in preparation for the day when more captive-bred animals can be released into the wild to bolster a population that has stumbled over the last decade due to court battles, illegal shootings, management hurdles and feuds between ranchers and environmentalists.
In the last five years, there have been more than a dozen transfers of wolves around the reintroduction area, which spans millions of forested acres in Arizona and New Mexico. But only once during that time have wildlife managers released a new wolf as part of the program. That was in 2008.
The lack of fresh genetics in the wild is what has supporters of the program worried.
A subspecies of the gray wolf, Mexican wolves were added to the federal endangered species list in 1976 after they were all but wiped out due to hunting and government-sponsored extermination campaigns.
The federal government started its reintroduction effort along the New Mexico-Arizona border in 1998 with the release of 11 wolves. Biologists had hoped to have more than 100 wolves in the wild by 2006, but the numbers continue to hover around 50.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is ready to start its annual count next month. There’s some hope for improvement given the number of pups that were spotted with some of the packs earlier this year.
The latest blow to the program was a vote earlier this month by the Arizona Game and Fish Commission to not support the release of any new wolves until the federal government revamps its decades-old recovery plan for the species.
It could be another year before a draft of the new plan is released, and the prospect of no new releases has supporters like Eva Sargent with the group Defenders of Wildlife worried.
“The population just can’t make it without releases. It’s so small at this point and it’s already suffering from inbreeding because of the low number of founders,” she said. “I think it’s pretty much without doubt that without new releases, the population will start on a downward trend again and you can’t afford that when you’ve only got 50 animals.”
Tom Buckley, a spokesman with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the federal government has the authority to continue with releases but would prefer to have the support of Arizona. “¦
Sargent said she believes the recovery plan, once finished, will be the key to helping the program find its way.
“You’ve got to know what the goal is,” she said. “And the ranchers will be happy to see that too. Everybody wants to know: When do we get to the end game where there are plenty of wolves and we can treat them like other wildlife?”
Far from the offices in Washington D.C. and the courtrooms where some of the decisions about the wolves’ fate have been made, Dicks and her crew are playing out a complicated dance of sorts around rocky outcroppings and juniper trees in order to corner female No. 1034.
The wolf wanted no part of it. She ran back and forth as the line of people advanced, trying to force her into one of the wooden den boxes inside the acre-sized pen.
She checked out both ends of the line. No way out.
She made a half-hearted leap at the towering fence to her right. Digging her way out wasn’t an option either. Another six feet of fence is buried to prevent that.
With a narrow gap on the right side, she tried to break for it. Not a chance. The biologists have done this too many times. Their nets had her on the ground within a second.
After untangling No. 1034, the crew slipped on a muzzle and blinders. They worked fast to check her temperature, take a blood sample and vaccinate her for parvovirus, distemper and other diseases. They also weighed her and inspected her eyes, teeth and paws”¦ The biologists handle the wolves only once a year if that—the less contact, the better—and the ordeal can be stressful for the animals, causing them to overheat. “¦
The wolf bolted after the team was done. After making it halfway up the hill, it looked back twice.
“If that wolf had a middle finger, we’d probably be seeing it right now,” Buckley said, getting the group to laugh.
Fostering the wolves’ fear of people and maintaining their wildness is actually a serious matter for the recovery team.
So is trying to unlock the scientific mysteries that might help the wolf toward recovery, like why the pup survival rate isn’t higher and how packs choose which wolves to accept and which to shun.
“It doesn’t come with a handbook,” Buckley said. “We can rely on things that have been done with other populations and research on other species, but these wolves have their own unique qualities and this area has its own unique characteristics. There have been things that we have had to learn as we go. Sometimes there are hard lessons and sometimes there are ah-ha moments.”
PLEASE WRITE A LETTER TO THE EDITOR of the Alamogordo News, thanking them for this article and promoting more releases of Mexican wolves into the wild.
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 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Tips for writing your letter are below, but please write in your own words, from your own experience.
Letter Writing Tips & Talking Points
Below are a few suggestions for ensuring your message gets through clearly-your letter will be most effective if you focus on a few key points, so don’t try to use all of these. If you need additional help or want someone to review your letter before you send it, email it to email@example.com:
- Start by thanking paper for their coverage of this important issue-this makes your letter immediately relevant and increases its chances of being published.
- Stress that only about 50 Mexican gray wolves remain in the wild, making them the most endangered mammal in North America.
- Encourage the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service to use all the means available to them to expedite releases of captive wolves into the wild.
- Convey how important new releases of wolves into the wild are to increase the population’s numbers and genetic health-new releases are essential to pull the wild population away from the brink of extinction.
- Explain that there are wolves in captivity ready to be released and wolves in the wild that do not have mates; these wolves can’t wait two or more years for the new Recovery Plan to be completed.
- Talk about your personal connection to wolves and why the issue is important to you. If you’re a grandmother wanting your grandchildren to have the opportunity to hear wolves in the wild, or a hunter who recognizes that wolves make game herds healthier, or a businessperson who knows that wolves have brought millions in ecotourism dollars to Yellowstone, say so.
- Reiterate the ecological benefits of wolves to entire ecosystems and all wildlife.
- Keep your letter brief, between 150-300 words.
- Provide your name, address and phone number; your full address and phone number will not be published, but they are required in order to have your letter published.
Submit your letter here.
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Thank you for all you do to support Mexican wolf recovery!