More than 200 Mexican wolves are now roaming free in Arizona and New Mexico. The annual wolf count conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service documented 241 wolves. This is the first time there have been more than 200 wolves documented since the reintroduction efforts began. “This milestone has been 25 years in the making,” Brady McGee, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Mexican Wolf Recovery Coordinator, said in a press release. “To go from zero wild Mexican wolves at the start to 241 today is truly remarkable.
A coalition of conservation groups petitioned the federal government to list the coyote in parts of New Mexico and Arizona as endangered under the similar appearance clause of the Endangered Species Act. The groups say the Mexican gray wolf and the coyote look very similar—to the point that wildlife managers cannot always tell them apart. Michelle Lute, the carnivore conservation director at Project Coyote, has a Ph.D. in wild canid conservation. In an interview with NM Political Report, she said generally when trying to educate people about the differences between wolves and coyotes, people say to look for a bushy tail as well as differences in size and ear to head ratio. But those aren’t as obvious when it comes to the Mexican wolf and the coyote.
Wildlife advocates are suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, alleging that the revised management plan for the Mexican wolf fails to protect the wild canine. In a suit filed Monday, the advocates—Grand Canyon Wolf Recovery Project, New Mexico Wilderness Association, Wildlands Network, WildEarth Guardians and Western Watersheds Project—argued that the plan fails to promote genetic diversity, and leaves the wolf vulnerable to humans. They further oppose the restriction of the wolf population to an area south of Interstate 40 in Arizona and New Mexico. “Mexican wolves’ recovery is being hampered by politically motivated management decisions, like arbitrary population goals and geographic boundaries that fall short of what the species truly needs,” Greta Anderson, deputy director of Western Watersheds Project, said in a press release announcing the lawsuit. “Mexican wolves won’t be on a path to real recovery until the scientific recommendations are no longer being watered down by policies that appease the states and special interests.”
Related: Fish and Wildlife Service faces criticism over finalized Mexican wolf rule
Advocates also say that defining the small population of wolves in Arizona and New Mexico as non-essential harms protections.
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should treat our single, vulnerable population of Mexican wolves in the wild as ‘essential’ to the survival of the species,” Sally Paez, staff attorney for New Mexico Wild, said in a press release.
The population is classified as non-essential by Fish and Wildlife in part because there is a population of wolves in Mexico and because of the captive population.
A draft recommended decision in the Mexican gray wolf recovery plan would eliminate the population cap and temporarily restrict when a wolf can be killed, but environmental advocates say it still falls short of the reforms needed to ensure genetic diversity. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released the final supplemental environmental impact statement for the proposed revision for the Mexican gray wolf regulations on Friday along with the draft recommended decision. The final recommended decision will be issued after at least 30 days have passed.
This action comes following a 90-day public comment period that started in October. The Fish and Wildlife Service said they received more than 82,000 comments. The agency said in a press release that those comments did not result in any substantial changes to the final supplemental environmental impact statement.
Last year, advocates for the Mexican gray wolf cheered when a judge ruled the problem of poaching was not adequately addressed in a management plan by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Those same groups now want the agency to address sustainability goals. Mary Katherine Ray, wildlife chair for the Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter, said there is currently only one population of 186 Mexican gray wolves or “lobos” living in areas of New Mexico and Arizona. “Currently they’re listed as being non-essential, which means that the Service believes the wolf population — if it were to completely disappear — that’s the definition in the Endangered Species Act — that it could be replaced,” Ray explained. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has designated Interstate 40 as the northern limit of the Mexican Wolf Recovery Area, meaning wolves can be removed or killed if they travel beyond the boundary.
Wolf advocates praised a proposed revision to the Mexican wolf management plan that removes a cap on the number of animals, but they say this change does not go far enough. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released the proposed revision on Wednesday for public comments and the notice was published in the Federal Register on Friday, Oct. 29. In addition to removing the population cap of 300 to 325 wolves, the proposed revision establishes an objective for genetic diversity and temporarily restricts the killing of Mexican wolves. The proposed revision comes after the U.S. District Court of Arizona remanded a 2015 rule to the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2018.
Conservation advocates say they won a partial victory in a lawsuit regarding the Mexican gray wolf recovery plan. A federal district court judge ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Thursday to produce a draft recovery plan. This plan must be released for public comment within six months and must include site-specific management actions to reduce the number of wolves illegally killed. The plan must be finalized no later than six months after the draft is released. Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Endangered Wolf Center, Wolf Conservation Center and David Parsons, a former Fish and Wildlife Service wolf recovery coordinator sued the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2018.
After learning about a plan to place captive-born Mexican wolves in a den of wild wolves in Catron County, Rep. Yvette Herrell, a Republican from New Mexico, wrote a letter to State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard urging her to reconsider the move. “These activities are occurring less than two miles from the home of several of my constituents who have expressed to me their extreme alarm and fear for the safety of their family and livestock,” Herrell wrote in the letter dated May 7. “These constituents were only notified several days before the cross-fostering was to begin, giving them little time to voice their opposition.”
Garcia Richard granted permission in April for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to cross-foster wolves at the den. The cross-fostering of wolves is done to increase genetic diversity among the population. In her letter, Herrell said the cross-fostering places lessees at greater risk for harm caused by the reintroduction of the Mexican gray wolf.
Rangeland management of the 20th century was dominated by killing anything and everything that threatened livestock. Predators, and especially wolves, were characterized as both nuisance and threat to ranchers and hunters alike for most of the last century.
As the nature writer Aldo Leopold once wrote about the first quarter of the 20th century, “In those days we had never heard of passing up the chance to kill a wolf.”
That mindset, encapsulated by extermination campaigns waged by the U.S. government up until the 1960s, brought species like the Mexican gray wolf to the brink of extinction. Today, wolves, coyotes and other predators are still considered public enemy number one in many ranching communities. But a growing body of research indicates that killing predators doesn’t actually help prevent attacks, and may in fact lead to increased conflicts between humans and livestock.
“There’s this old saying, if you kill a coyote, two show up to its funeral,” said Michelle Lute, National Carnivore Conservation Manager at Project Coyote, adding that there is now an “increasing scientific understanding around why people say that.”
“We didn’t know that for a long time, because science only answers the questions that we ask of it,” Lute said. “We just made this assumption that we’re going to kill a bunch of coyotes and of course that’s going to help.”
Now, there are hints that the mindset among some ranchers around wolves and other predators is beginning to shift away from lethal management and towards something like coexistence, where preventative management practices are employed to keep livestock losses at a minimum, while keeping the rangeland ecosystem healthy.
Such techniques “prevent loss before they occur, which is better for everybody,” Lute said.
Peering at a map of red dots, Michael Robinson became worried when he couldn’t locate AF1251, the last adult Mexican gray wolf of the Prieto pack, who was also a mother with a yearling.
Robinson, senior conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, was keeping an eye on the remaining two members of the Prieto pack after the alpha male of the pack and a pup had been killed by the federal Wildlife Services agents earlier this year. Wildlife Services is a secretive federal agency that offers predator removal services for ranchers.
The two wolf killings followed the removal of a total of seven pack members over the last two years. “I’d been very interested in what would happen to the Prieto pack after [that],” Robinson said.
The mapping tool, provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, tracks endangered Mexican gray wolves using radio collar data. The map is usually updated every two weeks, but amid the pandemic, the map hadn’t been updated in over a month. When it was finally updated this week, Robinson said he checked the numbers of each red dot on the map, hoping to locate the female.