In the News: More diverse gene pool key to wolves
Last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shot the last captive-born Mexican gray wolf in the wild for “escalating nuisance behavior” after it came too close to Catron County neighborhoods.
It was a fairly routine kill, but the take of Mexican gray wolf No. 1130 marked a shift in the program to recuperate the endangered species: Today all 110 wolves roaming the wild of eastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico were born in the wild.
On the surface, that sounds like a milestone.
Just crossing the 100 mark for wild wolves sounds significant, especially for a program that began with just seven known wolves left in the species. The authors of the original 1982 Mexican gray wolf recovery plan – which badly needs an update – set 100 as a goal but could hardly imagine ever reaching such numbers.
Shouldn’t wolf advocates be celebrating, then? Shouldn’t ranchers, many of whom oppose the reintroduction of a top predator, be able to say enough is enough?
New Mexico Game Commissioner Ralph Ramos posed a question to the federal Fish and Wildlife Service at a recent commission meeting in Farmington. With more than 100 wolves successfully reproducing and surviving in the wild, he asked, “Why don’t we support their natural breeding? Why do we want to keep adding more?”
Here’s why: Because the Mexican gray wolf population isn’t nearly as strong as its numbers suggest.
Maggie Dwire, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s assistant wolf recovery coordinator, said most of the animals in the wild are related to one another – too closely related to ensure the survival of the species, the goal of the reintroduction program.
The Fish and Wildlife Service can’t get there without diversifying the gene pool, and right now many of the most genetically valuable animals are in captivity. Again, why?
When the Fish and Wildlife Service began releasing wolves into the wild in 1998 after a decades-long breeding program, it released wolves from the bottom of the genetic barrel, so to speak.
“We weren’t sure that releasing wolves after generations in captivity would even work,” Dwire told me. “As those wolves started becoming more and more successful, we started releasing from the middle of the barrel.”
Those wolves did well, too. So the Fish and Wildlife Service hedged its bets by releasing one wolf from the top of the genetic barrel 13 years ago: Female No. 521. She was so successful – a “super mom,” as Dwire put it, who wouldn’t stop breeding – “that almost every single wolf in the wild is somehow related to her.”
Today, when a wolf leaves his native pack he has a slim chance of finding a mate that is not somehow related to him, Dwire said. Inbreeding hurts the Mexican gray wolf’s chance of long-term survival.
The reproductive success of the super mom wolf is one part of that equation. The other is the lack of releases from captivity.
All told, the Fish and Wildlife Service has released seven captive-bred wolves over the past decade – all in Arizona. During six of the past 10 years, no wolves were released at all.
That has less to do with the sensitive politics that plague the program and more to do with biology and the limits of the previous rule governing management of the species: Releases of captive-bred wolves were restricted to one small area of the Apache National Forest in Arizona, where wolves had already claimed territory.
The new management rule published this year allows the Fish and Wildlife Service to release captive wolves into the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. The state’s Game and Fish Department is reviewing the Fish and Wildlife Service’s request for permits to do so.
The Fish and Wildlife Service believes it has found a way to improve the gene pool in the wild with wolf releases and simultaneously temper the risks to ranchers’ herds with a practice called cross-fostering. It has requested permits to release up to 10 pups into existing wolf dens in New Mexico.
Adult wolves that are released after living their entire lives in captivity tend to display more “nuisance behavior,” going after cattle instead of wild game. With cross-fostering, the Fish and Wildlife Service places pups born in captivity in a wild den before they are 2 weeks old. If the wild mother adopts them – and it’s worked with at least one mother wolf in Arizona – then the wolves are raised as wild wolves from the start and are less likely to go after domestic animals, Dwire says.
How large and diverse the wolf population eventually should be is a question to be answered by a new recovery plan; the Fish and Wildlife Service says it will begin work again this summer after disbanding two previous planning teams and pausing the work of a third. The latest management rule sets a current population objective of 300 to 325 wolves in the wild – not the final recovery goal.
The federal government’s end game is to build up the population of Mexican gray wolves to the point that management of the species could be turned over to the states. Then New Mexico could manage the wolf as hunted game – a goal the New Mexico Wildlife Federation of sportsmen supports.
It remains to be seen whether New Mexico’s Game and Fish Department will give the Fish and Wildlife Service a better chance at reaching that goal and the Mexican gray wolf a better shot at survival.
This article was published in the Albuquerque Journal.
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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
- The wild population of Mexican wolves is at tremendous risk due to its small size and genetics. Many more wolves should be released this year from the hundreds in captive breeding programs.
- At last official count, only 109 Mexican gray wolves were found in the wild, making them one of the most endangered wolves in the world. 100 was never the recovery goal, as the article implies, it was an objective, or milestone, set for 2006. This milestone was not met until this year, largely due to few releases and too many government removals and killings of endangered wolves.
- The US Fish and Wildlife Service’s claim that its failure to release wolves has not been due to politics is disingenuous. There was, and still is, habitat available in the Arizona portion of the recovery area and the Service could have expanded the area where new wolves could be released anytime in the past several decades. In fact, the Service greatly expanded the area where new wolves could be released this year but its plan for 2015 still allows only two adults to be released from the captive population.
- Although New Mexico and Arizona polling shows that the vast majority of voters in both states support the Mexican wolf reintroduction, state politics continue to hamper the program. NM Game Commission’s recent denial of a permit to Ladder Ranch to continue providing aid to the reintroduction is just one example of the many actions by New Mexico and Arizona wildlife agencies to thwart recovery.
- As the article stated, NM Game and Fish says it is now reviewing US Fish and Wildlife Service’s request for permits to release captive wolves into the Gila. Such permits should be granted without delay. New Mexico voters want wolves to succeed and New Mexico receives substantial Section 6 federal funding to assist in conserving threatened and endangered species.
- Wolves are an essential part of the balance of nature. They keep elk and deer herds healthy by ensuring the most fit animals survive.
- Mexican gray wolves are beautiful, intelligent, family oriented animals who were persecuted and nearly exterminated by the government. Shooting and trapping them disrupts their packs, separates mated pairs and can leave pups without parents
- Wolves are responsible for less than 1% of livestock losses. Most livestock losses are due to disease, accidents, and bad weather. The livestock industry has a responsibility to share public lands with wolves and other wildlife by using coexistence methods to avoid conflicts between livestock and wolves.
- Wolves are part of God’s creation. We have a responsibility to take care of them.
- Thank the paper for publishing the article.
- 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, between 150-250 words.
- 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.
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