August 03, 2009
by Rich Fredrickson and David Parsons
As scientists, we welcome the Obama administration’s commitment to scientific integrity. Sam Hamilton, President Obama’s newly appointed director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, affirmed at his confirmation hearing that his agency’s decisions would be “grounded in the best available science” and not influenced by politics.
The Mexican gray wolf, once an integral part of our Southwestern wildlife heritage, was reduced to just seven animals decades ago and remains the most imperiled mammal in North America. Despite 33 years of protection under the Endangered Species Act, only 52 of these rare carnivores could be found in the wild in early 2009. Restoring the Southwest’s iconic “lobo” should be a top priority for Director Hamilton.
In the 1980s, Mexican wolves were rescued from certain extinction through captive breeding. Today, over 300 Mexican wolves live in captivity, but with only two breeding pairs in the wild, the clock on genetic viability continues to tick.
Although management to maintain the genetic health and fitness of Mexican wolves has been paramount in the captive-breeding program, genetic management has been an afterthought in the service’s reintroduction program. And warnings from experts of threats to the genetic fitness of wild lobos have fallen on deaf ears.
Mexican wolves can thrive in the wild – they form packs, raise pups and hunt successfully. But the institutionalized system of shooting and trapping them to resolve conflicts with livestock – the very practices that drove wolves to the brink of extinction – continues to be the bane of wild lobos, even after their historic reintroduction in 1998.
The American Society of Mammalogists has called on the Service to stop trapping and shooting wolves until the population reaches a benchmark of at least 100 wolves in the Gila and Apache national forests in New Mexico and Arizona.
We and other wildlife experts are calling for immediate implementation of a science-based genetic-management plan for the wild population, more innovative ideas for preventing conflicts between wolves and livestock that keep wolves in the wild, and a new recovery plan for Mexican wolves – one that applies the best science and includes specific benchmarks that lead to full recovery.
Hamilton can ensure a sustainable future for Mexican wolves by directing the Fish and Wildlife Service to focus its efforts on establishing genetically diverse, fit and demographically robust wild populations of Mexican wolves using the best available science.
Mexican wolves lived in balance with nature for thousands of years. Reestablishing them will help restore the natural ecological health of the Southwest. As top predators, wolves play an important role in the food chain, keeping the populations of prey species such as deer and elk healthy and balanced within their habitats.
The new administration’s restored commitment to endangered species recovery and scientific integrity gives us hope that Director Hamilton will place an immediate priority on securing sustainable populations of our Southwestern lobos and preventing their second extinction in the wild.
Rich Fredrickson is a conservation geneticist at the University of Montana. David Parsons is a wildlife biologist with the Albuquerque-based Rewilding Institute.