Mexican wolves, still strangers in a strange land

  • Jen Jackson

 

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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Time Arts, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, is seeking an Executive Director. MTA advocates for and produces public artworks that advance social & environmental justice in...
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -