“Little Red Riding Hood,” the fairytale, symbolizes man’s intense fear and hatred for the gray wolf. Are they really blood-thirsty killers? In this country it is estimated that 20 to 30 humans are killed by dogs, and 22 humans by cows, every year. By comparison, in the last 120 years there have been three reported fatalities by wolves, all in Alaska, two of which were allegedly by rabies from wolf bites.
Las Cruces' own Jean Ossorio camped out in a tent for 529 days and nights in the range occupied by wolves. She recalls: “I have seen 57 wild Mexican wolves and heard a fair number of additional ones. Never once have I felt afraid for myself or any companions I've had with me.” Now here follows another myth: “Their diet is animals ranchers have.”
Elk have been the bulk of the wolves' diet in the reintroduced site in New Mexico and Arizona, according to Arizona Game & Fish Department. Wolves also feed on white-tailed deer, javelina, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, jackrabbits, cottontails and rodents. Being a predator, on rare occasions wolves prey on livestock. But there are several programs to resolve conflicts between agriculture and wildlife, notes the Defenders of Wildlife. If indeed “There are ranchers who have gone out of business,” there would have been compensation measures. Compensation is also available via the Livestock Indemnity Program (a Farm Bill/Agriculture Act-supported program) and via the Mexican Wolf-Livestock Council. These programs do require documentation of losses.
Controversial as he was, President Richard Nixon did make landmark achievements. One of them was the passing of the Endangered Species Act of 1973 to protect imperiled wildlife. The gray wolf as a species comes under this federal law. The Mexican wolf, often called the lobo, is a geographical race of the gray wolf, formally from the Southwest into central Mexico. This particular race of wolves is known for a unique feature; it carries genetic material from the Old World, and an international conservation organization urged that the Mexican wolf be given priority for saving. Even with its uniqueness, the lobo became extinct in the United States and in Mexico by the early 1980s due to persecution by man.
Fortunately, a small number of lobos had been taken into captivity not a moment too soon. Zoos in New Mexico and Arizona took leadership for a captive breeding program in conjunction with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The goal, although a very slow process, was to secure a core breeding population for releasing these wolves into their former geographical range. The eventual return of lobos to the original home came March 29, 1998.
Three packs of captive-born Mexican wolves were released in Arizona. This designated release site also includes New Mexico. Illegal killing immediately followed, and wolves struggled to build a breeding population. Thanks to the effort by conservationists the number increased to 163 by 2019. Yet it is a precariously small number and those wolves have a long journey toward a solid foothold in the wild. The lobo needs every bit of support from their neighbors, the citizens of this region.
Hopefully, citizens of New Mexico and Arizona have insight and foresight to recognize that the Mexican wolf is our shared heritage, a member of the wildlife world we can be proud of. Anti-wildlife bias and misinformation will not get us anywhere. As Robert Redford, the movie actor, once asserted: “We have made the entire planet ours. Can’t we afford to give back a little to the wolf?”
Ken Kawata is a retired zoo administrator and a former member of the Mexican Wolf Species Survival Plan Management Group. He resides in Las Cruces.
You can read about more of Jean Ossorio’s camping experiences in wolf country on our website.