Originally Published in the El Paso Times at 6:00 a.m. MT June 2, 2022 Updated 8:29 a.m. MT June 2, 2022
By Martha Pskowski, El Paso Times
A Mexican gray wolf named Mr. Goodbar has roamed on three legs near U.S. Route 60 in rural New Mexico for weeks.
Every so often the two-year-old wolf’s GPS collar pings to a new location. Past the ranching town of Magdalena, west toward Dátil. Through grasslands and forest, perhaps scavenging some roadkill along the way. He has covered untold miles since a gunshot wound to his right hind leg in January required amputation.
While Mr. Goodbar survived the shooting, many other Mexican wolves have not been so lucky: people have illegally killed more than 100 in the wild since 1998.
His story is a window into the challenges for recovery of the endangered species that currently numbers at less than 200 in the wild.
Conservation advocates filed a lawsuit in 2018 arguing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) failed to meet requirements of the Endangered Species Act to address illegal killings. A judge ruled in their favor last fall, prompting USFWS to update the Mexican wolf recovery plan.
USFWS released a revised plan in April, with additional strategies to reduce poaching, including more education for ranchers and hunters and additional law enforcement. But conservation advocates who brought the lawsuit say the plan doesn’t go far enough and overlooks effective strategies to protect wolves.
“The current draft revised strategy, which tinkers at the edges of the status quo but does not really change direction, will not lead to recovery of the endangered Mexican gray wolf,” Center for Biological Diversity conservation advocate Michael Robinson wrote about the revisions.
Thousands of people submitted comments during a public comment period ending May 16. The forthcoming final plan is the latest stage in the long fight over the wolf’s recovery, playing out in federal courtrooms, remote ranches and public forests.
A pup from Kansas goes west
The Mexican gray wolf was nearly hunted and trapped to extinction before it was listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1976. The captive wolf breeding program began soon after with just seven wolves captured in the wild in the U.S. and Mexico. USFWS reintroduced wolves to the wild in 1998.
Since then the agency has worked both to grow the total wild wolf population and increase their paltry genetic diversity. In 2015, USFWS biologists first implemented a new technique known as cross-fostering, placing a captive-born wolf pup with a wild wolf mother. The hopeful objective is for these offspring to survive to breeding age, find mates and reproduce. This in turn would increase genetic diversity and reduce inbreeding.
In April 2020, a wolf named Nova gave birth to a litter of pups at the Sedgwick County Zoo (SCZ) in Kansas. They were born within days of a litter in the Hoodoo Pack of wild wolves in Arizona. A match was made: the Hoodoo mother would raise some of Nova’s pups.
Nancy Smith, a SCZ zoological manager, christened the wolf pups in her care.
“We had a chocolate dessert thing going,” she said. She named the pups Mr. Goodbar, Reese’s, Fudge, KitKat and Twix.
“I remember naming him Mr. Goodbar and thinking, wouldn’t it be funny if he became a well known wolf?” she said.
Four of the wolf pups were flown to Arizona in spring 2020. By December, one of the pups had died, but Mr. Goodbar, Twix and KitKat survived and were collared for tracking.
“It’s exciting to know the pups actually went into the wild,” said Smith, who has worked at the zoo for three decades. “It is the most direct involvement you can have. That was a high point of my career.”
USFWS focuses on cross-fostering pups because releasing adult wolves into the wild is thought to cause more conflict with livestock. But in the 2017 recovery plan, the agency acknowledged many cross-fostered pups die before reaching breeding age.
According to the Mexican wolf interagency field team’s most recent quarterly report, in 2021, half of the 22 cross-fostered pups survived to the end of the year, comparable to rates for wild-born pups. 72 captive-born pups were cross-fostered between 2016 and 2021. Only four have reproduced so far.
Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity argues cross-fostering is not an effective way to increase genetic diversity. He advocates for bonded adult wolves to be released along with their pups in the wild to increase survival rates.
‘The wandering gene’
U.S. agencies are collaborating with Mexican counterparts, who began reintroducing wolves south of the border in 2011. Cross-breeding of wild wolves living in Mexico and the U.S. would increase the species’ genetic diversity.
But that requires crossing an international border.
Under the Trump administration, border wall construction accelerated in the wolf’s range in Southern New Mexico. Organizations including the Center for Biological Diversity filed lawsuits, warning new sections of wall would cut off wildlife connectivity for species including the wolf. Construction continued anyway.
After USFWS biologists collared Mr. Goodbar in late 2020, they could see in October 2021 when he started “dispersing,” biologist lingo for traveling in search of a mate and new territory.
He reached the border wall southwest of Las Cruces on Nov. 23, unable to continue south. The wolf paced for 23 miles along the border until Nov. 27 before heading north to the Gila National Forest. It was the first documented case of the border wall blocking a Mexican gray wolf.
Nancy Smith, the Kansas zookeeper, thought it a funny coincidence — Nova, Mr. Goodbar’s mother, is one of the few wolves to be documented crossing from Mexico into the U.S.
“She must have passed that wandering gene on to Mr. Goodbar,” Smith said.
Mr. Goodbar was unable to continue south, where he may have found a mate, connecting the populations in the U.S. and Mexico.
Few illegal wolf killings are prosecuted
January 2022 started with more bad news for Mexican wolves.
A wolf named Anubis traveled north of Interstate 40 in Arizona in late 2021, beyond USFWS’s Mexican Wolf Experimental Population Area but well within the wolf’s historical habitat range.
Anubis attracted the attention of Grand Canyon Wolf Recovery Project executive director Emily Renn.
“It’s totally typical behavior for wolves to travel long distances to find their own territory,” Renn said. “The wolves don’t know that rule is on paper, they don’t read the maps.”
Then on January 2, Anubis was shot and killed west of Flagstaff.
Sometime in January, Mr. Goodbar was also shot. Field biologists captured him Jan. 26 in New Mexico. An Albuquerque BioPark veterinarian amputated his right hind leg before he was re-released to the wild.
USFWS Office of Law Enforcement investigates illegal killings and shootings of wolves. There have been no charges in Anubis’s killing or in Mr. Goodbar’s shooting.
“We do not provide updates or comment on ongoing investigations,” said USFWS public affairs specialist Aislinn Maestas. “Nor do we provide details about our investigative methods, as that could have a negative impact on current and future investigations.”
According to USFWS, between 1998 and 2020, 119 of the 216 documented mortalities of Mexican wolves were illegal killings. But few wolf poachers have been prosecuted.
“There is very little prosecution and justice for these cases,” Renn said. “We need to change the culture around it being okay to kill wolves and for people to think they can get away with it.”
Wildlife biologist Dave Parsons of the Rewilding Institute lead Mexican wolf recovery at USFWS in the 1990s. He described the law enforcement office as “a black hole.”
“When I was running the program, five wolves were shot, and I couldn’t even get any information from the law enforcement division,” he said.
Recovery plan updated, but conflicts continue
With so few prosecutions, it’s difficult to know who is shooting wolves, and why.
USFWS’s new plan includes more outreach to hunters and livestock owners.
Maestas said this will include outreach to hunters about the presence of wolves and education about management techniques that can reduce the likelihood of wolves killing livestock.
The New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association (NMCGA) pushed back in comments to USFWS on the revised recovery plans.
“Ranchers have attended community educational meetings for years. More of the same is not going to improve attitudes about a recovery program has been shoved down ranchers’ throats,” the Association wrote.
At the heart of the debate are thousands of acres of public lands in Arizona and New Mexico, including in the Gila National Forest, where the Forest Service allows livestock grazing. These same areas are prime wolf territory.
During 2021, USFWS confirmed 127 cattle killed by wolves in New Mexico and Arizona. Ranchers are compensated when their cattle are killed, but say that’s not enough.
Robinson said there are effective ways to reduce conflict between livestock and wolves that USFWS could use. When cattle die of natural causes, the carrion often attracts wolves into the range of other cattle. He said ranchers should be required to remove dead cattle to prevent more wolf-livestock conflict.
Robinson also wants the federal government to stop providing telemetry receivers to members of the public including ranchers. These receivers show the most recent GPS location of wolves.
“Government-provided telemetry receivers were in the hands of at least two individuals among the very few ever to have been brought to justice … admitting that they illegally killed Mexican wolves,” Robinson wrote in his comments to USFWS.
Meanwhile the NMCGA says telemetry receivers are not enough to help ranchers avoid wolf conflicts, asking in comments to USFWS for a software application that would provide wolf locations in real time.
Few of these steps will do much good if wolf poachers are never prosecuted. The revised recovery plan also commits additional resources to law enforcement in “mortality hot spots,” where multiple wolves have been killed or disappeared.
“This means that law enforcement will patrol those areas, conduct investigations of wolf mortalities to determine the cause of death, and will coordinate with legal counsel in cases where prosecution is necessary,” said USFWS’s Maestas.
Dave Parsons called the proposed changes “minimal and insignificant.”
He estimated the additional funds would be enough to hire two new law enforcement officers.
“The wolves are in a huge area. Two more officers in the field might nab a poacher that might otherwise not have been nabbed,” he said. “But it doesn’t seem all that significant.”
Wolves survive out of sight
USFWS periodically uploads recent wolf GPS locations to an online map. Michael Robinson checks the map nearly every day. That’s how he first noticed Mr. Goodbar near the border wall.
In late April, he stood on the side of U.S. 60 near the town of Magdalena.
Ranchers had spotted several wolves recently and the GPS map showed Mr. Goodbar was somewhere nearby.
“He’s traveled quite a long way on those three legs,” Robinson said.
The springtime wind whipping around him, he cupped his hands and howled, imitating a wolf.
Driving through miles of grassland, Robinson had spotted pronghorn, snakes, a badger and plenty of grazing cattle. But no wolf. He worried out loud that without stronger protections, Mexican gray wolves are ultimately headed for extinction.
As non-profits, federal agencies and ranching industry groups discussed his fate, Mr. Goodbar kept his distance and kept moving. In search of food, a mate and survival.
Staff writer Martha Pskowski may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @psskow on Twitter.