Will the wolf survive? Battle over ‘los lobos’ heats up Southwest.

Why We Wrote This

Is it ever right to kill a protected species? In New Mexico and Arizona, a 24% increase in Mexican gray wolves is cause for celebration – and consternation.

Daniel Becerril/Reuters/File
A newly-born Mexican gray wolf cub interacts with its mother at its enclosure at the Museo del Desierto in Saltillo, Mexico, July 19, 2016. The Mexican gray wolf once roamed portions of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico, but was nearly wiped out by the 1970s.

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John Oakleaf is a clandestine matchmaker. He sneaks captive-bred wolf pups into wild dens.

“We go through a lot of effort, rubbing the pups together to make them smell alike,” says Dr. Oakleaf, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Wolf mothers are pretty good, but fortunately, they can’t count.”

A recent count suggests that those efforts are starting to pay off. In March, Fish and Wildlife announced that it counted at least 163 Mexican gray wolves in New Mexico and Arizona. The very next week, however, the agency authorized the killing of four wolves.

For conservationists, a protected species must be protected – no matter the cost. But the federal government has long taken a more nuanced approach, instituting protections and managing captive breeding programs but also allowing sanctioned killings to remove problem individuals.

The current debate is one more in a long line of regulatory battles that have pit advocates and the Fish and Wildlife Service against each other, though at heart, the two sides have a unified goal.

“We need to get more wolves in the wild, give them the space to roam, and learn to accept them on the landscape,” says environmental attorney Kelly Nokes.

John Oakleaf has learned to rejoice in small victories.

One such victory came on March 17, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced it counted at least 163 Mexican gray wolves in New Mexico and Arizona. That may not sound like much. And indeed the number is still perilously low. But it also represents a 24% increase over the previous annual count and follows a 12% increase the year before that. 

The uptick is a testament to the power of protection under the federal Endangered Species Act, says Dr. Oakleaf, a biologist with FWS. 

The very next week, however, the agency authorized the killing of four wolves, a twist that underscores the complexities involved in protecting an apex predator. For conservationists, a protected species must be protected – no matter the cost. But the federal government has long taken a more nuanced approach, instituting protections and managing captive breeding programs but also allowing sanctioned killings to remove problem individuals.

As field coordinator for the Mexican gray wolf recovery program, Dr. Oakleaf and his team have gone to great lengths to bolster the population, including placing captive-bred pups in wild dens. 

“We go through a lot of effort, rubbing the pups together to make them smell alike,” he says. “Wolf mothers are pretty good, but fortunately, they can’t count.”

To advocates, lethal removals undermine that painstaking effort and threaten the long-term survival of a species that the government has vowed to protect. For Kelly Nokes, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center, the current debate is one more in a long line of regulatory battles that have pit advocates and FWS against each other, though at heart, the two sides have a unified goal.

“We need to get more wolves in the wild, give them the space to roam, and learn to accept them on the landscape,” says Ms. Nokes.

Susan Montoya Bryan/AP
Members of the Mexican gray wolf recovery team vaccinate a wolf during an annual survey, in Reserve, New Mexico, Jan. 30, 2020. The survey found 163 wolves in the wild in New Mexico and Arizona, a nearly 25% jump in the population from the previous year.

The saga of los lobos, as the Mexican gray wolf is known in Spanish and colloquially, traces a familiar path. It once roamed portions of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico, but had been nearly wiped out by the 1970s. FWS listed it as endangered in 1976 and brought the seven known remaining lobos into captivity. In 1998, the agency released 11 captive-bred animals in a small area on the Arizona-New Mexico border now known as the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area.

Conservation groups have repeatedly taken the agency to court, most recently suing over what they say are shortcomings in and discrepancies between a 2015 rule for reintroduction and a recovery plan revised in 2017. Among the reasons cited: The rule sets arbitrary limits on population numbers and range, and the plan departs from the best available science and includes politically motivated obstacles to recovery.

One major point of contention hinges on a population cap of 325 outlined in the 2015 rule. 

“Best available science shows that, at minimum, a population of 750 is required for recovery, including three separate populations of at least 250 wolves each,” says Ms. Nokes. 

In 2018, a federal judge found that the 2015 rule “fails to further the conservation of the Mexican wolf” and sent it back to the agency for rewriting.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is in the process of adapting that rule, which was based on research into how much space wolves need, to better meet the long-term goals of the most recent recovery plan, says the agency's policy coordinator, Tracy Melbihess.

Ms. Nokes argues that the plan does not address all threats facing the species, as required by the Endangered Species Act. In particular, she says, it has no method to address the population’s lack of genetic diversity.

To conservation groups that have waged these battles for decades, the discussion of lethal removals feels like one more setback on the road to recovery for los lobos.

But to Nelson Shirley, lethal removals are a vital last resort.

Owner of Spur Lake Cattle Co. headquartered in New Mexico, Mr. Shirley says he lost about 120 of his 2,000 cows to wolves last year. Both wolf packs involved in the lethal removals have been on Spur Lake ranches.

“I am not in favor of wiping wolves out, just in favor of removing the wolves actually killing livestock,” he says. “I can only go from my personal experience that when we have been successful in trapping and removing a wolf that has been implicated in depredation, those stop immediately, like flipping a light switch.”

Mr. Shirley employs several nonlethal methods to control wolf depredation, but questions their effectiveness – and their cost. 

The focus on cost frustrates wolf advocates. Bryan Bird, southwest program director for Defenders of Wildlife, argues that removing livestock from public land, not wolves, could more effectively reduce depredation. 

“Bottom line, this is a hotspot for conflict between wolves and cows,” Mr. Bird says. The Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area is on national forest land.

Ms. Nokes of the Western Environmental Law Center thinks in terms of cost too, costs to the recovery of the Mexican gray wolf.

“The 163 wolves in the wild is definitely a bump up from last year, which we’re really excited about,” she says. “But just think what could happen if we actually aided their recovery instead of hampering it.”

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