Environment

Endangered Mexican gray wolf at heart of political battle in Southwest

Federal efforts to recover wolf population expose bitter tension between anti-government and environmentalist activists

The Mexican gray wolf population is less than 100 in the Southwest.
Arizona Game and Fish Department

CATRON COUNTY, N.M. — Last year, government agents removed a pair of Mexican gray wolves from the Southwestern United States. They were accused of preying on livestock, and their time in the wild was over. Today the female lives in captivity. The male was killed, but his genetic legacy may live into the future.

“Unfortunately, when he was examined by a veterinarian at a facility in New York, it was determined he had a large mass in his abdomen and had to be euthanized,” said Sherry Barrett, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Mexican wolf recovery coordinator. Working with state and tribal partners, the agency has been trying to recover the species that had been hunted to near extinction in the mid-20th century.

As state and federal political administrations have changed over time, support for the program to recover the Mexican gray wolf population has waxed and waned. Southwestern ranchers remain virulently opposed to the predator. And, like the two captured last year, wolves suspected of feeding on livestock — or that roam outside the official recovery area — are removed from the wild and sometimes killed. But the challenges the program faces run even deeper — and may have more to do with how humans see one another than with how wolves themselves move across the landscape.

Retired wolf recovery coordinator Ed Bangs.
Retired wolf recovery coordinator Ed Bangs.
Laura Paskus

“Wolves are easy,” said Ed Bangs, a retired Fish and Wildlife Service wolf recovery coordinator, suggesting that people rally around wolves as stand-ins for larger issues. “People are very interesting.

“There is so much controversy and bitterness, and it’s not necessarily about wolves, but deeply held symbolic values,” he said. “Things like private property rights, our relationship with nature, climate change. Then people become very polarized over it, and that doesn’t help anything.”

After more than two decades of planning, the recovery team reintroduced the first Mexican gray wolves into the wild in 1998. Since those 11 wolves were released into a region straddling Arizona and New Mexico, with a recovery goal of 100 wild wolves by 2006, there are currently fewer than 90 living in the wilds of Arizona and New Mexico.

But the agency is proposing program changes that Barrett said will improve the chances of recovery. Under current regulations, the federal government may release captive wolves only within a narrowly restricted area in Arizona. The changes would allow for releases within New Mexico as well, giving wolves the freedom to roam a much larger swath of habitat within both states.

“A lot of people ask why this population hasn’t grown as quickly as the northern Rockies program,” Barrett said, referring to one of the agency’s other wolf reintroduction programs, which includes more than 1,600 wolves across five states.

The big difference, she said, has to do with the huge landscape those animals inhabit; it includes millions of acres of wilderness in Idaho as well as Yellowstone National Park, where neither grazing nor hunting is allowed. In contrast, Mexican gray wolves not only have a smaller recovery area, their habitat is also a “working landscape” where livestock grazing occurs even within wilderness areas. 

Battle lines drawn

Tucked into the southwestern part of the state, just along the border with Arizona, Catron County is New Mexico’s largest and third least populous county. Just over 3,600 people are spread across nearly 7,000 square miles. Much of the county consists of national forest lands, including the Gila Wilderness.

But Catron County is a hotbed of anti-government sentiment. Anti-wolf signs pop out from the side of the highway near the towns of Glenwood and Reserve. On a few rural roads, locals have built plywood and chicken wire cages they say serve as bus stops to protect their children from wolves. 

One of the anti-wolf signs posted around western New Mexico.
One of the anti-wolf signs posted around western New Mexico.
Laura Paskus

“It’s criminal to turn loose habituated wolves raised in captivity on the citizens of this country,” said Catron County Commissioner Glyn Griffin, who lives in the town of Reserve. “There’s not a civilized country in the world that would do that to their people.”

Griffin has worked in the ranching and logging industries for decades. He said wolves threaten the ability of rural people to make a living.

“You can’t raise any cattle, you can’t get any calves,” he said. “It’s a fairy tale about wolves. They’re a predator that’s going to destroy the last two industries we have left in this county: livestock and hunting.”

He’s unhappy with the Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposed rule changes, and he challenges wolf supporters who live outside the area.

“The pro-wolf people need to have them in their backyard. The bosque [cottonwood tree forest] around Albuquerque would be a good place,” he said. “Then see what the reaction would be when people can’t let their pets outside and you have to keep a close eye on your children.” 

Tensions around the topic run high. Sometimes very high.

At a public meeting last spring, a rancher told Barrett he’d charge her with murder if his child were hurt or killed by a wolf. And as the agency plans to release wolves into Arizona in the coming months — the first releases in five years — Republican lawmakers in the state Legislature are trying to block wolf recovery.

Biologists with the wolf program navigate this often-hostile landscape, while at the same time answering to environmental groups that say the agency is dragging its feet on recovery. 

Slow recovery

Conservation advocate Michael Robinson, with the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, said he is heartened by the recent bump in population to 83 individuals.

“But that’s still perilously low in terms of individual animals, and more alarming is that there are only five breeding pairs,” he said from his home in southern New Mexico, just on the edge of the Gila National Forest. “That reflects, in part, the inbreeding depression that’s afflicting the population; that is, the low pup survival rates and the low number of pups born in each litter on average.”

In the case of the two wolves captured last year, the euthanized male wolf’s testicles were harvested as part of an effort to ensure that with the passage of time, researchers are not losing genetic diversity.

“We started the program from seven founding wolves,” Barrett said, “and we have to manage against the inbreeding of individuals.”

While Robinson supports some of the agency’s changes, including those involving where wolves are released and can roam, he said many others in the proposal are counterproductive to recovery. Two of these include the loosening of restrictions on killing Mexican gray wolves and a pledge to remove wolves that cross into northern New Mexico and Arizona.

“The modeling shows that in order to get the number of wolves that would truly get the subspecies out of danger of extinction on the landscape, you would have to have a significant number of wolves in the Grand Canyon and southern Rockies,” he said. “If you prevent the movement of wolves into those areas, you are thwarting recovery.” 

Optimistic outlook

Bangs, the retired wolf recovery coordinator, said wolf biologists have it tough in the Southwestern United States compared with programs farther north.

In addition to having less land and fewer wolves to draw from than the programs in the northern Rockies and Great Lakes programs, the Southwest program not only originated from just seven animals — four of which were in captivity — but most Mexican gray wolves today still come from captive breeding programs.

“Those are questionable genetics,” Bangs said. “The characteristics that allow an animal to survive in captivity are the opposite of those you need in the wild.”

And while Bangs sees people as potential barriers to the recovery program’s success, he is optimistic it can work.

“Humans persecuted wolves for thousands of years, and the idea of restoring them is, what, 50 years old?” he said, adding that the Mexican gray wolf recovery is making progress — even when compared with those successful programs in the Northern United States with thousands of wolves. “We need to take a deep breath and take the perspective of time: This has been the hardest program to do, and it’s going to take a little more time.”

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