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Mexican wolves face a rocky road to recovery

 

Mexican gray wolves have nearly disappeared from the Southwest — again. This spring, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service inadvertently killed most of the members of a pack of 12 wolves in eastern Arizona.

In April, the White Mountain Apache Tribe asked the agency to remove the Hon Dah pack from reservation lands after the wolves killed at least seven cattle during the past year. The 10 wolves’ deaths are a wrenching example of almost everything that has gone wrong with the troubled recovery program.

When the Wildlife Service set out to capture the Hon Dah pack, it first trapped a yearling male, according to Victoria Fox, an agency spokeswoman. That wolf died in captivity. Then the Service captured the alpha female in May; she sustained a foot injury and died overnight in captivity. Around the same time, a wolf-recovery team member shot and killed the alpha male after trapping efforts failed. Six of the alpha pair’s four-week-old pups were placed with a pair of foster wolves; the foster male killed them all. One pup could not be caught and is presumed dead.

Only two members of the original pack remain: a yearling male, now in captivity in a New Mexico facility, and another yearling that’s still free and may have left the area since the pack has been destroyed.

The pack had been "good ambassadors" for the program before the recent spate of cattle killings, says John Morgart, recovery coordinator with the Service. Morgart says that although the wolves’ deaths are a setback, there is still a secure breeding population in captivity (HCN, 7/25/05: Wolf man John).

The bigger question is not why so many wolves are dying when biologists handle them, but why biologists have to handle the wolves so much in the first place, says Curt Mack, a biologist in Idaho with the Nez Perce Tribe’s wolf program. "All that hands-on activity is very stressful for wild animals," he says (HCN, 10/17/05: Handling grizzlies: How much is enough?).

The Mexican wolves’ territory — 4.39 million acres of the Blue Range straddling Arizona and New Mexico — is mostly covered by grazing allotments that are used year-round. According to David Parsons, who headed the Mexican wolf program from 1990-’99, recovery rules have become skewed to favor ranching, making it more likely biologists will have to trap, handle and relocate wolves as they come into conflict with livestock.

If the program could utilize more of the Southwest’s high-quality wolf habitat — areas with fewer roads, plenty of prey and less livestock — the Mexican gray wolf could establish a sustainable breeding population, Mack says. Wolf reintroduction has been much more successful in the Northern Rockies, where wolves can roam 11 million acres of public land, most of which is not grazed year-round. Morgart says the Fish and Wildlife Service plans to release or relocate five Mexican wolves this month. The agency is expected to recommend changes to the program by July.