Wolves face ever more obstacles

captive Mexican Wolf - photo by Jeromy Parsell

By Mary Katherine Ray, chapter wildlife chair

As the drought intensifies and the fires are raging on wildland across New Mexico, our beleaguered Mexican wolves continue to struggle.

The famous Middle Fork pack, whose alphas are both three-legged (the male from a trap injury), has gone missing. This pack has successfully raised pups in the past and their radio collars were at the end of their functional life, so they might have stopped working. But there has been no sign of them in the field for three months either. The reintroduction program is now classifying the entire pack as “fate unknown.”

To boost the populations, plans were made to place two mated pairs from captivity into the wild. But they too have suffered setbacks. One of the pairs in the prerelease pen in Arizona had pups, but they all died. Unexpectedly, two wolves from another pack began to occupy the territory intended for the transplants, so regrettably, they are being sent back into captivity.

The pair in New Mexico chewed their way out of their pen in the Gila Wilderness, but the male immediately left the area and had to be recaptured many miles to the east, apparently headed back to the Sevilleta wolf-holding facility from which he had come. On the way, he is reported to have killed a calf. He most probably will never be released again. His mate did whelp his puppies in the wild and is caring for them from a food cache being maintained by the field team in the Gila Wilderness.

In all, seven packs are exhibiting denning behavior, which means they have pups. This represents about half of the known packs in the wild. Despite the drought, the fires, more losses and the unraveling of the best-laid plans, these new litters offer new hope for the Mexican wolf population.

Delisting from endangered status

Nationally, the Fish and Wildlife Service has announced plans to delist all wolves from endangered-species status with the exception of the Mexican wolf population. Bowing to political pressure, the six states with the largest wolf populations have already delisted them: Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota in the Great Lakes region and Montana, Wyoming and Idaho in the Northern Rockies. The wolf populations had reached a combined total of just over 6,000. (Interestingly, the number of wolves in the Northern Rockies at the time of delisting was just about what it was in the Great Lakes states when wolves there were given endangered-species protections, which illustrates the political nature of the decision.)

When wolf management is turned over to the states, a bloody massacre of wolves has ensued that is based on fear. No animal from which endangered protections have been lifted has been so persecuted. Imagine if once the bald eagle reached recovery numbers, hunts were implemented so that there could never be more than a few hundred eagles allowed to live in any one state. Game agencies in delisted wolf states now offer hunting and trapping seasons and generous bag limits. In parts of Wyoming, wolves can be killed in any number at any time — just like coyotes. Idaho alone killed off 7 percent of its wolves in only one season.

Among the carnage have been collared wolves that were part of years of research in Yellowstone and iconic wolves beloved by wildlife watchers. Extreme hunting groups and livestock interests are pushing the game agencies to kill ever more wolves. They claim to be for conservation, but in truth they are turning wildlands into game farms unable to tolerate natural predators competing with human hunters. And this is despite elk populations being larger overall than before wolf reintroduction and livestock depredation by wolves being vanishingly small.

If the remaining wolves that have wandered into states where they are still protected are delisted and turned over to state management, there will be no requirement to allow them to flourish. They will never be allowed to play the role of apex carnivore, which we now know is so important to ecological health. One of the most successful conservation efforts will tragically be doomed.

Mexican wolves

Mexican wolves are to be spared delisting for the time being. The new proposal reclassifies them as a distinct subspecies separate from gray wolves.

The plan has admirable elements, such as allowing direct releases of wolves into New Mexico without having to be released in Arizona first, and wolves that wander outside the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area (BRWRA) won’t have to be captured and returned unless they leave the “Mexican Wolf Experimental Population Area” (MWEPA), which is being proposed as a larger swath across New Mexico and Arizona (see figure). There would be stronger rules for trapping in wolf country that would require rigorous staking and would also forbid neck snares. (We, of course, still favor abolishing all trapping because it is so indiscriminate and cruel for all species.)

But the proposal also will make it easier to shoot and trap wolves for depredation. The current rules set a benchmark goal of 100 wolves and six breeding pairs.

The proposal drops the requirement for any breeding pairs even while acknowledging that the BRWRA has enough prey base for a much larger population than 100 wolves; two to four times larger. The new proposal fails to define what recovery would look like, which also has the potential to prematurely open wolf management in the Southwest to state control.

Mexican wolves and all wolves deserve better than being treated as pawns in a political shell game. Wolf management shouldn’t mean only wolf killing. It should mean a commitment to abide by the intent of the Endangered Species Act and to restore and protect our wildlife heritage, and that includes a robust population of wolves, not just remnant tokens.