By Michael Robinson / Conservation Advocate Center for Biological Diversity
They can’t sniff out the meaning of “control” orders or know that thousands of humans are urging their survival, but the 3-year-old alpha male and female and their five pups in the Fox Mountain pack at the northern edge of the Gila National Forest are at the center of a furor – and very much at risk – over the future of their kind.
This family of Mexican gray wolves killed four cattle on private land between March and July. They primarily eat elk.
The last depredation occurred after a range rider who was successfully hazing the wolves away from livestock suffered a medical emergency and was not replaced. The previous three depredations occurred before range riders were hired.
Conservation groups compensated the stock owners for their losses and paid for the range riders. But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has ordered the removal of the alpha female of the Fox Mountain pack, citing not just the depredations but also her close genetic relationship to her mate, who is her first cousin.
Yet, the government’s solution to the problem of inbreeding actually helped cause the problem in the first place.
Wolves don’t naturally pair up with their cousins. A 2007 genetics study of northern Rocky Mountains gray wolves in Yellowstone National Park found that they “avoid inbreeding through a wide variety of behavioral mechanisms including absolute avoidance of breeding with related pack members male-biased dispersal to packs where they breed with nonrelatives. … Inbreeding avoidance is nearly absolute despite the high probability of within-pack inbreeding opportunities and extensive inter-pack kinship ties between adjacent packs.”
That’s in a population that transcended Yellowstone, spanning parts of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, and numbered more than 1,500 wolves, including 100-plus breeding pairs. But the sole wild population of Mexican gray wolves, reintroduced to the Southwest in 1998 just three years after the Yellowstone reintroduction, at last count this year comprised just 58 wolves, including only six breeding pairs.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has not released a single new wolf from the captive-breeding pool since November 2008. The last wolf released that had previously been captured from the wild was freed in January 2011.
Since Mexican wolf reintroduction began, the government has shot 12 wolves, inadvertently killed 18 through capture, and kept 32 other once-wild wolves in long-term captivity; at least nine of those have died from age-related ailments.
One of the wolves shot in 2004 was killed months after his last of four depredations in a one-year period, after he had been seen feeding on an elk in the interim, and even after a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist emailed her supervisors that he was genetically irreplaceable.
All the Mexican wolves in the wild and in captivity stem from just seven animals that had narrowly escaped trapping and poisoning by the Fish and Wildlife Service in the United States and in Mexico in the decades before passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973. Live-capture and breeding of these seven wolves saved their kind from extinction.
A 2007 study of wild Mexican wolves showed that inbreeding was causing lower litter sizes and pup survival rates. But the Fox Mountain cousins have kept a pup alive from last year and four still alive from this spring’s litter.
Fish and Wildlife Service conjectures that once the alpha female is removed her mate will find a less-related female. But they are together because in the absence of recently released wolves they could not find mates they’re not related to.
The Service was right to reverse its initial decision to shoot her. But trapping is not the answer. Hiring a new range rider and resuming the release of captive-reared wolves are essential.
That way, today’s Fox Mountain pack pups can find suitable mates in years to come, and thereby save their pups from possible infertility. If so, I hope their grandma will still be in the wild, helping to teach them to prey on elk.
CLICK HERE to make calls urging decision-makers to keep the Fox Mountain alpha female in the wild with her family and to release more wolves.
Once you've made your calls, please write a letter to the editor, thanking the paper for this article and urging the USFWS to keep this wolf mother with her pups and to release many more wolves into the wild.
You can submit a letter to the Editor of the Albuquerque Journal here.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Start by thanking paper for publishing this article. This makes your letter immediately relevant and increases its chances of being published.
Inform readers that wolves are social animals who rely on family members in hunting and pup rearing. Trapping or darting this wolf, and removing her forever, would disrupt the pack.
Remind them that, at last count, just 58 wolves, including six breeding pairs, survived in the wild. This is no time to bring back the policy of scapegoating wolves who occasionally prey on livestock.
Explain that the USFWS is using the Fox Mountain alpha wolves’ genetics as an excuse for removing the female, and point out that the reason these pups’ parents are so closely related may be due to the fact that not a single new wolf has been released from the captive-breeding pool since November 2008.
Assert that the way to improve the wild populations’ genetics is to release many new wolves into the wild, so that when the Fox Mountain pups, when they grow up, will be able to find unrelated mates. The wild population is extremely small and vulnerable to threats such as disease, inbreeding, or natural events. The USFWS should end the freeze on new releases of captive wolves into the wild.
Let people know that by removing this wolf, the USFWS is depriving four pups born this summer of their mother, harming this family of wolves, and breaking apart one of only a few breeding pairs in the wild.
Convey how important new releases of wolves into the wild are to increase the population’s numbers and genetic health, especially now.
Tell readers why you support wolves and stress that the majority of New Mexico and Arizona voters support the Mexican wolf reintroduction. Polling showed 69% support in New Mexico and 77% support in Arizona.
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.
Describe the ecological benefits of wolves to entire ecosystems and all wildlife. Wildlife biologists believe that Mexican wolves will improve the overall health of the Southwest and its rivers and streams – just as the return of gray wolves to Yellowstone has helped restore balance to its lands and waters.
Keep your letter brief, between 150-300 words.
Provide your name, address, occupation, and phone number; your full address, occupation, and phone number will not be published, but they are required in order to have your letter published.
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