Howls of protest greet Mexican wolf reintroduction
New Mexico program faces higher hurdles than similar one in Yellowstone.
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People may be tougher to manage than wolves
“We might have underestimated the social implications of wolf reintroduction,” says FWS Southwest Regional Director Benjamin Tuggle, of the recovery plan. While some dispute this characterization – plenty of research was done on social realities, they say – it does raise a question of rising concern among “hard” scientists. Is conservation about managing nature, or people?
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After wolves returned to Yellowstone in 1995, aspens, long mysteriously declining, returned. Willow stands along riverbanks grew more robust. The greater diversity of trees hosted more bird species. Scientists concluded that, during wolves’ long absence from the area, elk and deer had overgrazed willow and aspen. Now, wary of ambush, they avoid dense stands of trees.
“The elk have changed their behavior based on the risk of predation,” says ecologist William Ripple at Oregon State University, Corvallis. The insight: Predators affect ecosystems not only by direct predation, but by inspiring fear.
Smaller than its northern cousin, the Mexican wolf once ranged throughout the “sky islands” – higher elevations areas – of the US Southwest and Mexico. By 1970, poisoning and trapping had eradicated it from the US. By the late 1970s, scientists could find just five individuals in northern Mexico. All Mexican wolves today – some 300 in zoos and breeding centers across the country and 52 in the wild – descend from just seven individuals.
“Evolution never ceases, and now it’s taking place in a captive environment,” says Dave Parsons, formerly with the FWS and now with the Rewilding Institute, a conservation organization in Albuquerque. “The longer they’re in captivity, the less adaptable they’re going to be … as reintroduction stock.”
The first captive-bred Mexican wolves entered the wild 10 years ago. The goal: 102 wolves in nine years. But the population is just half that. Pro-wolfers often fault the FWS. The agency has killed or removed (to permanent captivity) 47 wolves. Poachers have taken 29.
“With one hand they’re putting them out, and with the other hand they’re taking them back,” says Michael Robinson, an advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity in Silver City, N.M. “The Fish and Wildlife Service is operating a control program masquerading as a recovery program.”
Stock losses rise 4 to 10 percent
A 2007 resolution by the American Society of Mammalogists called for suspension of all predator control until the goal of 100 wolves was reached.
But ranchers say there’s no room for wolves here.
Hugh McKeen, commissioner of Catron County, a locus of antiwolf sentiment, says some ranchers have seen yearly stock losses rise from 4 to 10 percent. Defenders of Wildlife offers compensation, but, says Mr. McKeen, the criteria are so stringent that, for every successful claim, many others go uncompensated. (Defenders has paid $106,493 for 176 domestic animals killed by wolves in the Southwest.)