Wolves are smart, family-oriented animals and science demonstrates that problems with livestock increase following wolf removals. So why does the government keep removing wolves in response to conflict with livestock and hope that solves the same problem?
Right now, in the Gila National Forest, there is a wolf family that is facing a huge amount of hostility for their ongoing conflicts with public lands livestock grazing operations. But before the Fish and Wildlife Service decides to remove or kill any more wolves, it should first consider the human-caused adversity that these wolves are facing.
Despite the protections of the Endangered Species Act ostensibly afforded to lobos, a shocking number in the Prieto Pack have been killed, removed, and maimed by people. In November 2018, a young female from the pack was found dead, and the incident is still under investigation. In December 2018, a male and female were seen dragging private traps on their legs and then caught and removed from the wild by the Fish and Wildlife Service. The female died in captivity and the male lost his leg.
Another Prieto male was found dead in February 2019, and in March, the Fish and Wildlife Service removed two young wolves from this family, only one of whom was released back to the wild. And then, in November 2019, two more Prieto wolf pups were trapped by a private trapper, and one subsequently lost her foot when the trap fell off; the other was taken into captivity for veterinary care and released in December. And these are just the incidents we know of; other wolves from the pack may have been illegally killed but remain unfound or unidentified. (All of these incidents are reported in the monthly reports posted by the Arizona Game and Fish Department.)
Killing or permanently capturing wolves rarely solves more problems than it creates. Wolves are social animals and family is everything. A mix of accidental or illegal killings and injuries, untimely dispersals and disappearances, and vulnerable livestock in the woods in winter is a recipe for conflict. At least three wolf packs use this same territory in the Gila, demonstrating that it is prime wolf habitat, and maybe not such a great place for livestock.
The Prieto Pack is currently under fire for preying on livestock at the same ranch in the same problematic part of the Gila National Forest as last year. There’s talk of removing some of the family members in the interest of conflict reduction. It’s clear that manipulation of this family is at least part of the reason that they are preying on livestock as opposed to native prey, and contrary to established science, the agency thinks doing more of the same will solve the problem.
History is repeating itself, but the Fish and Wildlife Service can change this story. Rather than removing any more Prieto wolves, the federal agencies should recognize that this is a problem grazing allotment, remove the livestock instead of disrupting this struggling family of wolves, and let the wolves be wolves.