With the opening of their holding pens 12 years ago, wolves stepped into their historic home on the Southwestern desert for the first time in over 50 years. So began the reintroduction of the Mexican gray wolf into southern Arizona and New Mexico. It was a culminating moment for the state and federal agencies that had spent several decades planning for it.
Canis lupus baileyi was retrieved from the brink of extinction in the late 1970s when the last known remaining Mexican wolves -- all five of them -- were found in the wilds of Durango, Mexico, and placed under human care. The 300 Mexican wolves now in captivity, and the fewer than 50 that roam free, are all descendants of that small, lonely pack.
Now, a dozen years into on-the-ground recovery effort, it is failing, and I can't help but wonder if we are we righting a wrong or resurrecting a tragedy. In recent months, four wolves have been illegally shot, and there may only be one breeding pair remaining in the wild. As wolf numbers continue to decline, just one new wolf has been released into the wild since 2007.
The lobos' perilously generated genetic diversity is diminishing as key wolves are killed, and the deleterious effects of inbreeding are apparent in small litter sizes and low survival rates. Meanwhile, area ranchers are no closer to embracing resident wolves than they were decades ago. To date, 36 wolves have been criminally slaughtered, 151 have been removed by the very agency responsible for their recovery, and 46 have disappeared into thin air, their status labeled "fate unknown."
This condition -- fate unknown -- could be applied to the entire subspecies. First, the federal plan ensuring the lobos' survival has not been updated since 1982. Second, its provisions are designed for failure. The wolves are not allowed a livestock-free area to roam without heavy-handed management (as they are in Yellowstone), and wolves are not allowed to colonize beyond the recovery area's boundaries. No changes were required in livestock husbandry practices to mitigate wolf encounters, and the subspecies is designated a "nonessential, experimental population." This final provision allows for the destruction of any animal deemed a threat to livestock -- even though the Mexican wolf is an endangered species.
Nonessential. Experimental. Worth less than non-native cattle. These are the terms by which a Mexican wolf lives. One can't help wonder if this so-called recovery plan is crueler to the canids than the swift extinction from which they were saved.
As one who has been moved by wolves howling on the wind -- a sound that is haunting, mournful, alive and keening -- I want to see wolves restored to their historic range. I want to see atonement for the human-authored tragedy of wolf eradication.
But I would rather find silence in the land of the lobos if the alternative means that we repeat a bitter history. I would rather not have wolves at all than subject new generations to past paradigms. Is it right to insert an animal -- especially one carrying so much emotional and mythical baggage -- into the lives and livelihoods of a people not yet willing to accept it? Is it appropriate to force a predator to colonize a livestock-laden patch of ground, essentially ensuring conflict and failure? Is it fair to subject wolves to translocation and the murder of their pack mates, thus devastating family ties and ancient instincts? Can we possibly do right by an animal we are not yet willing to weave into the fabric of our lives?
I won't judge those who are unable to embrace the wolves in their midst. Though I am sympathetic to the plight of the wolves, ranching is not my livelihood. Perhaps I would feel differently if my profits walked among wolves, even though it is true that international livestock markets, bovine respiratory disease and domestic dogs are far more likely to drive a rancher out of business than are lobos. Ranching is a life of uncertainty. Wolves have become a symbol of all that can't be controlled.
But the truth is that the myth of the bloodthirsty wolf stands larger than its reality, and in the battle between our deep-seated fears and our hopes, the wolves bear the greatest burden. There is no new narrative of coexistence, of respect for all creatures on the land. We seem stuck in the stories of the old days, when wolves were the enemy that must be eliminated. Until we change that perception, wolves in the Southwest won't have a prayer.
Jen Jackson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives in Moab, Utah, where she works several jobs, including librarian and editor.