Advocating for wolves’ rights to live as they should—wild, free and protected in their native habitats—is no small task. As executive director for the nonprofit Wolf Conservation Center (WCC), Maggie Howell leads wolf-conservation advocacy initiatives to help people understand wolves and the complex, controversial and highly politicized issues that threaten them, both at the WCC’s 26-acre facility in South Salem, N.Y., and on tour throughout the Northeast.
“We advocate for wolves’ rights because they cannot speak for themselves,” Howell says. “It’s a toxic environment out there when it comes to wolves.”
Though she loves all wolves, Howell admits to being a bit obsessed with the lobo, or Mexican gray wolf, a beautiful, intelligent sub-species that is critically endangered. WCC, the preeminent facility in the eastern United States for captive breeding of critically endangered wolf species, is home to about 13 lobos, the smallest, southernmost and most genetically distinct subspecies of the North American gray wolf—and among the rarest mammals in North America.
Lobos lived in mountains, forests and valleys from central Mexico up through Utah from prehistoric times until the last century, when extreme predator removal efforts, sanctioned by the U.S. government from the late 1800s through the mid 1900s, resulted in extermination of the species from its wild ancestral landscapes in the United States. Under the Endangered Species Act, reintroduction efforts in the past decade have established a small population of 109 (latest count as of January 2015) lobos, descendants of the last remaining Mexican gray wolves who were captive bred and then released into their native territories.
Unfortunately, when 11 captive-reared lobos were released into the wild on March 29, 1998, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) designated the species “experimental non-essential,” an unfortunate loophole that allows extra leniency for “management.” Howell explains that lobos are allowed to roam only in small areas of public land, which are also used by the livestock industry as inexpensive, subsidized grazing land. The “experimental non-essential” designation and accompanying special section 10(j) regulation allows USFWS to remove or even kill any wolf that kills a cow or sheep.
“What this really means is that industry and recreation can trump recovery.” Howell says. “Basically, they’re saying that is that if any or all of these (reintroduced) wolves die for any reason, that’s OK. It’s not a disaster because their genetics are represented in captivity.”
Of course, reality’s not that simple. Experts are concerned that lobos are adapting to captivity, which is already resulting in smaller litters, less successful breeding and decreased pup survival.
The WCC and a coalition of conservation groups are suing USFWS for failing to implement a valid recovery plan for the lobo. “It’s crucial that the species be allowed to survive in the wild,” Howell says. “The Service has repeatedly acknowledged that the current reintroduction program will not recover lobos, and yet it continues to stall on developing and implementing a recovery plan that will ensure the survival of these iconic and imperiled wolves.”
The more pressure the U.S. Fish and Wildlife feels about changing the designation, the better. Howell’s brilliant “I AM ESSENTIAL” campaign has hit a sweet spot in the wolf advocate community and increased awareness of the lobo’s plight among many different stakeholders, and WWC has designated March 23 through March 29 #LoboWeek. Culminating in the 17th anniversary of the lobo’s return to the wild on March 29, 1998, #LoboWeek is an opportunity for wildlife organizations, zoos, advocacy groups, businesses and individuals to talk about lobo recovery on social media and traditional media outlets. “#LoboWeek is about harnessing the power of social media to broaden our reach to and create a national movement,” Howell says.
Howell understands that the wolves’ plight is symptomatic of a controlling culture that doesn’t revere the wild world. “We’re living in a time when people really have to start asking, ‘What kind of world do we want to live in?’” Howell says. “Do we want to have some sort of unknown, some sort of mystery, some sort of true wilderness remaining on our planet? I hope that most people would say ‘yes!’—and I believe that we have an ethical obligation to say yes. I want to inspire more people start thinking about what they what they want to see in the future.”
Zoe Helene is a media correspondent and advocate for women, wildlife and wilderness. She works with leading activists, scientists and organizations across the globe to save species such as the critically endangered Maui’s Dolphin and the Mexican gray wolf.
This blog was posted to Ecosalon on March 20, 2015
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