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Op-Ed: Recovery of Mexican Wolf is in jeopardy

By Sergio Avila Special to the Arizona Daily Star - May 25, 2018

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One of the United States’ most endangered mammals, the Mexican Gray wolf, can only be found in two states within our borders: Arizona and New Mexico. The last counts found just 114 left here and 31 in Mexico.

The fate of the Mexican Gray wolves is uncertain, but not because we don’t know how to save these magnificent creatures. As a wildlife biologist, I can tell you the steps we need to take are clear, if only the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would take them. But, to date, they’ve only agreed to do too little to put the wolves on a solid path to recovery.

These wolves once roamed from central and northern Mexico well into Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Texas and Utah. The extermination of the wild wolves began as an effort by private ranchers. It was completed by the U.S. Biological Survey in the U.S. and its successor organization, the USFWS, in Mexico.

Today, the small number of wild wolves descend from just seven captive wolves that became the foundation for a U.S.-Mexico recovery program.

The USFWS released a disappointing blueprint for wolf recovery last November. It sets a low bar, with a goal of just 320 wolves in the U.S. It keeps wolves confined to just one area within our borders, where they already are — in the Blue Range of eastern Arizona and western New Mexico. Unfortunately, nobody told the wolves to read signs telling them where to roam. The plan also fails to increase the wolves’ genetic diversity and puts most of the onus of recovering wolves on Mexico.

The plan cannot stand as it is without undercutting the recovery of this iconic species. It is being challenged in a federal court in Tucson by a coalition of conservation groups.

Back in 2010, a much better recovery plan was drafted based on sound guidance of leading wolf scientists but was discarded. That plan recommended a population goal of 750 in three locations, with vast public lands and adequate prey populations.

The pattern of ignoring scientists is a recurring problem. Last month in a separate case, a federal judge said the agency should have heeded a warning from scientific advisors, and that the agency was misusing their scientific research, “in such a manner that the recovery of the species is compromised. To ignore this dire warning was an egregious oversight by the agency.”

Many see the wolf as an important creature that symbolizes nature at its best. Others have a spiritual connection to wolves. Yet a few others fear the impact of wolves on their livestock, even though only a small number of livestock are killed by them.

When predators are endangered, their low population numbers impact much more than their own fate. Without enough wolves, their prey, such as deer and elk, can overgraze areas, reducing vegetation too much, in turn causing other consequences. For instance, a loss of vegetation cover can cause soil erosion, minimizing the absorption of rain water in the land and contributing to streams eventually drying up.

Aldo Leopold confessed to being wrong about killing wolves after he watched the “green fire” die from the eyes of a female wolf. “I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise.”

Throughout my career in research and conservation of wildlife in the U.S Southwest and northwest Mexico, in addition to my volunteer efforts for local, regional and international conservation organizations, I have relied on scientific evidence to guide my conservation work, aided by traditional ecological knowledge and values. For the sake of the wolves, and the people who value their existence, I hope the recovery plan will be altered to do the same.

Sergio Avila has worked as a conservation scientist and wildlife biologist for more than 20 years for a variety of nonprofit organizations in northwest Mexico and the southwest United States.

This article was published in the Arizona Daily Star

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Show your support for Mexican 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 for writing your letter are below, but please write in your own words, from your own experience.  Don’t try to include all the talking points in your letter.

Letter Writing Tips & Talking Points
  • The genetic crisis Mexican gray wolves are in is expected to result in lower pup survival rates, which we are now seeing. The only way to prevent the species from going extinct is to rapidly improve the genetics of the wild population by releasing adult wolves from captivity. Without releasing adults, the wild population could crash very quickly due to its small size and inbreeding.
  • The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will not see the 10% annual population growth of Mexican gray wolves they claim they want to achieve with the methods they are employing. Their plan to recover the species without ever releasing an adult wolf to the wild again is preposterous and in bad faith.
  • Cross-fostering wolves is only one tool in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s toolbox and cannot be relied upon solely to save the Mexican gray wolf from extinction. Releases of captive adult wolves are desperately needed this year to save the species.
  • The  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must get serious about curbing illegal killings of endangered Mexican gray wolves by increasing public acceptance of wolves, increasing penalties to dissuade wolf killers, and by accepting contemporary research on negative impacts of removing wolves who depredate.
  • It has now been 40 years since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service first listed the Mexican gray wolf under the Endangered Species Act, yet the species is still struggling to remain viable.
  • We have a moral, economic and scientific responsibility to restore endangered species like the Mexican gray wolf.

Make sure you:

• 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, under 150 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.

Submit your letter to the editor of the Arizona Daily Star