By Greta Anderson, originally published in the Arizona Republic: Wolves don’t obey an imaginary border. Neither should Arizona
Updated Tue, September 26, 2023, 8:57 AM MST – 3 min read
The recovery of Mexican gray wolves in the wilds of Mexico has stumbled in recent years, even as their population has steadily increased in the United States.
It’s not for lack of trying, as Mexican biologists have worked with diligence and dedication to keep lobos on the ground since the first wild releases in 2011.
Unfortunately, a lack of public land and the widespread use of predator-killing poisons has continued to devastate Mexico’s wolf population.
Approximately 75 lobos have been released in Mexico in the past 12 years, but neither they nor their offspring have managed to thrive. Only six wolves are known to have survived in the wild for more than one year.
Restoring wolves to Mexico isn’t working
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as of early September, there are no more collared wolves left in the wild in Mexico, and fewer than 15 wolves in total south of the border.
This reflects a dismal trend downward from the federal agency’s 2011 estimate of 37 wild wolves, and a profound shortfall compared to the species’ Recovery Plan benchmark goal of 100 wild wolves in Mexico by the end of 2023.
In contrast, at the end of 2022, there were an estimated 241 wolves of Mexican gray wolves in the wild in Arizona. Unfortunately, even as the population in the U.S. has grown, the wild wolves are extremely inbred, having descended from just seven original founders.
Arizona’s wandering wolf: Is finally freed from lobo lockup
Scientists have recommended the establishment of additional subpopulations, including in the Grand Canyon ecoregion, to offset the genetic crisis in the wild population and to ensure against the second wild extinction of the species.
It makes ecological sense, and in recent years, Mexican gray wolves have been wandering on their own into the suitable habitats of northern Arizona and northern New Mexico (and, it should be noted, swiftly captured and sent back to the recovery area by state agencies).
Keeping them south of I-40 isn’t working
The Arizona Game and Fish Department adamantly opposes the recovery of Mexican gray wolves north of Interstate 40. For at least 10 years, the state agency has been advocating on behalf of hunters and livestock operators instead of wildlife.
The department has also worked to publish journal articles asserting that the wolf’s historic habitat occurs primarily in Mexico and reinforcing its beliefs about where the reestablishment of the species should occur in the states — i.e., restricting them to the current recovery area in the southern portions of Arizona and New Mexico.
Unfortunately, the department’s adamance about Mexican gray wolf recovery occurring in Mexico doesn’t fit with the reality that it’s a much harder lift for our southern neighbors, as evidenced by the dwindling numbers in their wild population.
There have been wild wolf releases for 12 years in Mexico, but so far, the species isn’t gaining a foothold.
The department’s line in the sand — Interstate 40 — isn’t helping Mexican gray wolves truly recover, and its alternate plan — recovering wolves in Mexico — isn’t working.
Let wolves return to northern Arizona
Supporting wolf recovery in Mexico and recognizing the need for additional subpopulations in the U.S. aren’t mutually exclusive ideas. We want to see Mexico’s program succeed, but the recovery of Mexican gray wolves in the U.S. can’t wait.
Gov. Katie Hobbs should support securing the future of Mexican gray wolves in the wild by supporting the reestablishment of the species in northern Arizona, Arizona Game and Fish Department’s political preferences notwithstanding.
It’s time to remove a major roadblock to wolf recovery and allow for wolves to be reintroduced north of Interstate 40.
Greta Anderson is the deputy director of Western Watersheds Project and lives in Tucson.