15 years of Mexican gray wolves: celebrate or sob?
Friday, March 29 will be the 15th anniversary of the day U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staffers braved a blizzard to release the first group of captive bred Mexican gray wolves – also called “lobos” – into the wild. The wolves had been waiting in pens in the Apache National Forest in Arizona, the first of their kind in the wilds of the Southwest in decades. Now, 15 years later, there are 75 wild Mexican gray wolves in Arizona and New Mexico, and a handful in Mexico. That’s something to celebrate – part miracle, part Endangered Species Act triumph. An animal that was completely extinct in the wild, with only seven “founder” wolves as breeding stock to save it, is back and howling and having pups and strengthening the natural systems that sustain everything, humans included.
If you live in the Southwest, we have opportunities to celebrate in Flagstaff and Pinetop, Arizona, and Albuquerque, New Mexico. Of course, some people will prefer to sob: there are not enough lobos in the wild; they need to overcome genetic problems; and they are confined to one population in one area of the Southwest. The slow turn of the Mexican gray wolf as it tries to step back from edge of extinction is agonizing to watch. Will the rarest wolf in the world teeter and fall? As someone who lives lobo recovery and politics every day, I can’t just sit around and sob. I need to act, and I need you with me.
Saving the Mexican gray wolf is all about dedication and political will. There’s not much mystery left about what needs to be done. It has been spelled out in various published scientific papers, in USFWS’s own program reviews and their Mexican Wolf Conservation Assessment, and during previous attempts to update the recovery plan. The current recovery team’s scientists have worked it out again, and more rigorously than ever.
In honor of this 15th anniversary of lobos returning to the Southwest, Defenders is calling on the Fish and Wildlife Service to do what needs to be done. In order to back the wolves away from the precipice of extinction and get them headed toward recovery, USFWS must:
1. Release more wolves from captivity as the first step in a science-based genetic rescue plan;
2. Complete the recovery plan, and implement it; and
3. Move ahead as quickly as possible to establish at least two additional populations of Mexican gray wolves.
Some of these steps are long and complex, and some are relatively easy. USFWS has been promising and trying for years to release more wolves. They are stymied by their own out-of-date rule that prohibits wolves straight from captivity from being released in New Mexico, and by their continued deference to the Arizona Game and Fish Commission, which has appointed itself gatekeeper over wolf releases while supporting removing all wolves, including our 75 Mexican gray wolves, from the Endangered Species List.
USFWS needs to wait for no one to finish the recovery plan; not only is it entirely under their direction, it is also required by the Endangered Species Act. They are currently engaged in their third attempt to update the 1982 plan; the last two attempts were abandoned at about the point when it became clear that the best science said that Mexican wolves will not survive without many more wolves in several populations. The current recovery team has not met in over a year, although the scientists keep compiling ever stronger evidence that Mexican wolves need many more wolves in several populations in order to survive.
These new populations will take years to establish. Once the recovery plan is completed, USFWS will need to consult with the state agencies (which are already represented on the recovery team), and the public, and there will be plenty of discussion about where exactly to reintroduce wolves, and where they might wander from there. There will be ample time for public input and fine tuning, but the time to start all of this is now. USFWS must realize that those who are afraid of wolves are already mounting an opposition to the expansion of Mexican wolves anywhere, despite strong public support for wolf recovery in the region.
Mexican gray wolves have no time to waste. They need their stewards to overcome obstacles, ignore those whose entrenched opposition they will never overcome and do what needs to be done to assure their recovery. What USFWS does or doesn’t do now will determine whether it is possible for the Mexican gray wolf to recover. That’s what makes this anniversary a cause for both celebration and action.
Eva Sargent is the Southwest program director at Defenders of Wildlife.
Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.