For millennia, the Mexican gray wolf served as an engine of natural evolution on the Southwestern landscape, helping keep deer alert, providing carrion for scavenging animals such as bears, eagles and badgers, and discouraging elk from lingering to graze stream-side trees, providing habitat for songbirds, beavers and fish.
Our arid ecosystem shaped our native wolf into the smallest of the gray wolf subspecies in North America, an animal that preyed on the diminutive Coues whitetail deer, and that is the most genetically distinct gray wolf on our continent, and the rarest.
In 1998, the U.S. government reversed course from decades of trapping and poisoning that had eliminated Mexican wolves from the wild and reintroduced a small number of wolves to the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area and set a goal of having at least 100 wolves in the wild by 2006. Unfortunately, this goal has not been met and the population has continued to struggle, not for lack of tenacity on the part of the wolves, but because of polices by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that are badly in need of reform.
Almost 15 years after the first Mexican wolves were reintroduced, a mere 58 wolves live in the wild, leading to inbreeding that researchers suggest may be lowering litter sizes and depressing pup-survival rates.
Wolf numbers have not thrived in part because the Fish and Wildlife Service as a matter of policy has aggressively captured wolves that leave the recovery area and thereby constrained natural growth of the population. The agency has also shot many wolves for preying on livestock, even in cases where ranchers have not done their part to protect their stock by, among other things, removing dead livestock that attract wolves.
In total, the agency has had 12 wolves shot, 35 captured and never released, and accidentally killed 18 wolves it meant to secure alive.
In 2001, the agency convened a panel of highly respected scientists to evaluate the program. These scientists called for urgent reforms “immediately,” including releasing wolves into the 3.3 million-acre Gila National Forest, which is currently prohibited, and allowing wolves to live outside the recovery area, as well as requiring livestock owners to remove or render inedible (as by lime) the carcasses of non-wolf-killed cattle and horses.
More than 10 years have passed, yet none of these reforms have been enacted. That’s why the conservation group I work for filed suit against the government last month to compel the implementation of the 2001 scientific recommendations.
It is our hope that with implementation of these recommendations, the Mexican wolf can still be saved.
The first thing that needs to happen, even before policies are changed, is that Fish and Wildlife needs to use its existing authority to release more captive wolves into the wild, which has not occurred in four years. That would begin to address the Mexican wolf’s genetic crisis and give us hope of restoring the wolf’s natural role to the Southwest.
In the long run, we hope the Fish and Wildlife Service will take steps to allow Mexican wolves to recolonize a larger area of their former range and serve their important role in shaping Southwest’s ecosystems, as well as thrill those who are fortunate enough to hear their mournful howls or see one of these magnificent animals in the wild.
Michael Robinson is a conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity in Silver City and author of Predatory Bureaucracy: The Extermination of Wolves and the Transformation of the West. (University Press of Colorado, 2005.)
This Op-Ed ran in Santa Fe New Mexican on December 15, 2012.
PLEASE SUBMIT LETTERS TO THE EDITOR THANKING THE PAPER FOR THIS ARTICLE AND CALLING ON THE US FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE TO RELEASE MORE WOLVES INTO THE WILD.
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.
Convey how important new releases of wolves into the wild are to increase the population’s numbers and genetic health, especially now.
Remind readers that, at last count, just 58 wolves, including six breeding pairs, survived in the wild. 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.
State that the USFWS needs to change the rule that prohibits releasing wolves into New Mexico if they have not previously lived in the wild. The USFWS has for years been sitting on the Environmental Assessment that would make changing this problematic rule possible. Allowing direct releases in New Mexico will give wildlife managers the flexibility to get more wolves on the ground, regardless of unexpected events like forest fires. It will allow them to choose the best places for releases to succeed. And it will give these important animals a much better chance at recovery.
Advocate for a new, science-based recovery plan to replace the outdated 1982 plan; the US Fish and Wildlife Service should be doing all in its power to expedite release of a draft plan based on the work of the scientific subcommittee. Development of a new recovery plan that will address decreased genetic health and ensure long-term resiliency in Mexican wolf populations must move forward without delay.
Inform readers that obstruction by anti-wolf special interests and politics has kept this small population of unique and critically endangered wolves at the brink of extinction for too long and can no longer be allowed to do so.
Say that to reduce livestock-wolf conflicts livestock owners should be required to remove dead livestock from public lands or render the carcasses inedible (by applying lime). Dead livestock left lying around on the landscape can lead wolves to become habituated to domestic meat.
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.
Thank you for taking the time to write a letter on behalf of these important animals who cannot speak for themselves!
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Photo credit: Amber Legras