New Mexico’s baby wolf swap worked. Why won’t state officials get on board?

It’s time for Gov. Susana Martinez to give wolf reintroductions the nod.

 

The eyes of the conservation world were on New Mexico recently as biologists placed two endangered Mexican wolf pups – so young that their eyes were still closed – into a litter of wild wolves, deep in the Gila National Forest.

It was the end of a remarkable journey that began hundreds of miles away at the Endangered Wolf Center in St. Louis, Missouri, where the pups had been born nine days earlier. The animals were chosen for their unique genetic makeup, and the hope was that they would be accepted and raised by their new family, eventually producing offspring of their own.

Getting wild wolves to raise captive-born pups is a tricky business. It’s known as cross-fostering, and it has never been tried with Mexican wolves before. As the Wolf Center’s Regina Mossotti says, “Not only do the stars have to align, but the moon and the planets, too.” But with only 100 or so lobos still living in the wild, it is a risk that needs to be taken. Biologists say that infusing new genes into the wild population through cross-fostering and direct releases of paired adult wolves is urgently needed prevent the animals’ extinction.

wolfpup-jpg
Regina Mossotti examines Vida, a wolf pup, who was part of the first foster from professional care to the wild for Mexican wolves at the Endangered Wolf Center, before she is released in New Mexico.
Endangered Wolf Center

Happily, it seems to be working this time. The pups appear to have been adopted by their new wild parents.

Saint Francis of Assisi would have been proud. As the story goes, he miraculously brokered a pact between the town of Gubbio and the wolf that was said to be terrorizing it. Often overlooked in the telling of this medieval parable is that the offending wolf was motivated by hunger, not malice. Peace was only achieved after Francis acknowledged the wolf’s needs and pledged to provide for the animals.

In modern terms, we might acknowledge the wolves’ needs by admitting that the animals need enough room to roam and that they have an intrinsic right to exist. These are things that humans too often deny to the millions of other species with which we share the planet.

As Pope Francis has said, “Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us.” Both the saint and his contemporary namesake might view bringing two wolf pups to the wilds of New Mexico to save a subspecies as the Miracle of Gubbio: Part Two.

But New Mexico officials don’t seem to see it that way. The state’s Department of Game and Fish threatened to take the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to court to prevent releases of wolves in the state. To its credit, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did the right thing and released wolves anyway. Since then it has placed more pups with wild wolf families in Arizona.

State officials say their gripe is over legal issues – “states’ rights” – and not opposition to wolves themselves. But that statement is suspect. The Fish and Game Department, the commission that oversees it, and Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, who appointed the Game Commission, have demonstrated ample times that they don’t want wolves in New Mexico.

Shortly after Martinez was elected, for example, the state withdrew as a partner in the lobo recovery program. Then state officials began denying permits to import and release wolves, though such permits had been routinely issued in the past. More recently, Martinez joined with the governors of neighboring states in declaring their opposition to allowing wolves to expand into areas that biologists say are essential to the animals’ long-term survival.

Even though the state is unlikely to prevail if it goes to court to stop additional wolf releases, a lawsuit could cause damaging delays. The loss of genetic diversity is a one-way ticket to extinction, and the only way to reverse it is to release more wolves, with different genes, before it is too late.

Ironically, throwing up roadblocks to wolf recovery simply puts one of the officials’ goals further out of reach. Throughout the West, state officials insist that they want and deserve control over wolves. But their actions only postpone the day when the Mexican wolf is declared recovered and taken off the federal endangered list. And that is something that has to happen before management can be turned over to New Mexico. Where other states, such as Idaho, have taken over management, the usual response has been aggressive hunting and trapping to reduce wolf numbers. There’s no reason to think New Mexico wouldn’t do the same thing. 

For now, keeping wolves under federal management is fine with the majority of New Mexicans who welcome wolves and want them to thrive here.

Kevin Bixby is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is executive director of the Southwest Environmental Center in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.