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Genetic crisis looms as state and federal roadblocks hamper lobo recovery
SANTA FE, NM — After a brief delay due to the government shutdown, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released its annual count of at least 114 Mexican gray wolves living in remote areas of western New Mexico and eastern Arizona. The Mexican Wolf Interagency Field Team deployed in January and found at least 63 wolves in Arizona and 51 wolves in New Mexico. The population is divided into 22 known packs along with a number of solo wolves. That there is essentially no change in population of critically imperiled wolves is bad news, and comes in the context of intentional roadblocks set up by state agencies and a deeply flawed “recovery” plan released by the Trump administration in November 2017. Lobos face a genetic bottleneck, frequent human-caused-mortalities, and arbitrary limits to their range and population.
“It is a testament to their resiliency that Mexican wolves are clinging to survival in the face of efforts to stymie their recovery,” said Christopher Smith, southern Rockies wildlife advocate for WildEarth Guardians. “Population growth is being undermined by state agencies in New Mexico and Arizona and a ‘recovery plan’ driven by politics and special interests rather than science.”
"The Mexican wolf is one of the most endangered subspecies of wolves in the world, and a valuable part of our southwestern wildlife heritage,” said Hailey Hawkins, Southern Rockies Field Representative for the Endangered Species Coalition. "We urge the Fish and Wildlife Service to increase – rather than limit – its efforts to recover this iconic subspecies so future generations have the chance to see a wolf in the wild Southwest.”
“Despite the efforts of state and federal agencies and some in the livestock industry, these highly endangered wolves persist,” said Sandy Bahr, chapter director for Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter. “Persisting is not enough, however, we need wolves to thrive in order to have a truly recovered animal. That means more wolves in more places, including Grand Canyon, and connected populations.”
“As the Mexican wolf population struggles to grow and expand into additional areas, public education and outreach is essential to their safety,” said Emily Renn, Executive Director of the Grand Canyon Wolf Recovery Project. “There should be no excuses for people killing a critically endangered Mexican wolf anywhere they may disperse in the Southwest.”
Mexican gray wolves continue to suffer from illegal killings that have resulted in very limited enforcement actions. The wild population lost 12 wolves in 2017 that went unexplained, and another wolf was killed at the hands of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Four wild-born pups were removed and placed in captivity as part of the Interagency Field Team’s cross-fostering efforts. Of the four captive pups that were placed in wild dens, only one is confirmed to be alive. The tiny increase in the wild population is tempered by these killings and removals. Recent research shows that illegal killings increase when wolves are removed from the Endangered Species list and that agency removals due to depredations may actually increase the risk of further depredations, counter to popular belief. Illegal killing can be slowed by increasing acceptance of wild wolves and strong legal protections for the species, but releases of more adult wolves are urgently needed to increase the genetic diversity of the wild population.
Entirely extirpated from the wild in the U.S. by the 1970s, the Mexican wolf is an iconic and ecologically important species in the Southwest. Lobos received federal Endangered Species Act protection in 1976 and since then have faced a slow and tumultuous road to recovery. Along with habitat limitations and animosity from the very agencies that should be restoring the species, the lobo faces a dire genetic crisis. The entire wild population in New Mexico and Arizona descends from only seven wolves, which were captured in Mexico and found in zoos beginning in the 1970s.
Full recovery for wild wolves remains a distant goal. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s recently released “recovery plan” caps the population at 320 wolves and arbitrarily restricts their presence to south of Interstate 40. Human-caused mortalities are still wolves’ greatest threat in the wild. A slew of evidence exists indicating that agencies and governors from Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah have intentionally hampered vital releases of Mexican wolves into the wild. The best available science, and the 2012 draft recovery plan, which was scuttled for political reasons, recommend a metapopulation of 750 wolves across three southwestern geographies including the Grand Canyon Ecoregion and the southern Rockies, along with the current Mexican wolf range in the Gila Bioregion. For true recovery these three populations need to each have at least 250 wolves and have genetic exchange facilitated by protected wildlife corridors.
suggests that people want wolves to fully recover throughout their historic
range—including the southern Rockies and the Grand Canyon area—state and
federal agencies need to make that happen,” said Smith.
The lobo, or Mexican wolf, is the smallest, most genetically distinct, and one of the rarest subspecies of gray wolf. The subspecies was listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1976, but recovery efforts have foundered because the Service has yet to implement scientifically recommended recovery actions.
Although lobos once widely roamed across the southwestern United States and Mexico, the Mexican wolf was purposefully eradicated from the U.S. on behalf of American livestock, hunting, and trapping interests. Recognizing the Mexican gray wolf's extreme imperilment, the Service listed it on the federal endangered species list in 1976, but recovery efforts have been hampered because the Service has yet to take the actions science shows is necessary to restore these animals.
In 1998, after the few remaining wolves were put into captivity in an attempt to save the species, the Service released 11 Mexican wolves to a small area on the border of Arizona and New Mexico now known as the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area.
Mexican wolves are at tremendous risk due to their small population size, limited gene pool, threats from trapping, Wildlife Services’ activities, and illegal killings.