March 26, 2020
Craig Miller

It’s Lobo Week and we have great news to share: The Mexican gray wolf, one of the world’s rarest land mammals, is making a comeback in the wild!  Earlier this month the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) released its official 2019 Mexican gray wolf population count revealing that 163 individual wolves in 42 packs are in the wild in Arizona and New Mexico, up 24% from last year’s count! 

Mexican gray wolf mp1911
Evelyn Lichwa

This is an amazing achievement considering that just a few decades ago these rare wolves had been eliminated from the wild and reduced to just a handful of captive individuals. 

Wolves play a key ecological role in keeping ecosystems healthy. They help to keep deer and elk populations in check, which benefits many other plant and animal species while keeping forests diverse and resilient to drought, disease and wildfire. The carcasses of their prey help to redistribute nutrients and provide food for other wildlife, like bears and eagles. Wolves also provide unparalleled opportunities for research and recreation—few experiences in life are more interesting and exciting than following their tracks, listening to their howls and observing their interactions in the wild. 

The effort to help these wolves recover in the wild presents a rare and important opportunity to increase our understanding of this long-misunderstood animal and to improve our stewardship of the land as we learn how to right a past wrong. To give wolves the best chance of success in the wild, Defenders of Wildlife is supporting a variety of field projects in partnership with diverse partners including wolf-country ranchers and state, tribal and federal agencies.  A few key projects that are making a difference for wolves include:

Volunteer Field Internships
Mexican gray wolf
Evelyn Lichwa

We are supporting an inspiring team of field interns who are instrumental in every step of the process to restore and protect lobos in the wild, from field camera and telemetry monitoring to cross-fostering wolf pups and coexistence measures to minimize conflicts with livestock. We teamed up with the California Wolf Center, a captive-management facility for Mexican gray wolves, to support this field internship program, where volunteers (typically graduate students with experience in biology and wildlife management) help FWS and the Arizona Game and Fish Department to monitor wolves and implement conflict-reduction tools and techniques to give our lobos the greatest chance of success in the wild. 

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Mexican gray wolf in the grass
Image Credit
Lauritson
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Mexican gray wolf pawprints
Image Credit
Lauritson
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Mgw intern with a wolf pup
Image Credit
Megan Higgins
Photos taken by the field interns.
Tribal Youth Wolf Program

Defenders of Wildlife partners with the White Mountain Apache Tribe to support its unique program to engage tribal youth directly in wolf recovery activities. Youth participants are hired and trained to work alongside the tribe’s team of wolf technicians and biologists, as well as members of the Interagency Wolf Team, to execute monitoring and management activities. This firsthand experience helps participants gain valuable wildlife management skills and a deep appreciation for wolves and the natural world. Last year, six young tribal members worked throughout the summer with immeasurable positive impacts. Its success has prompted the tribe to ask us to help them extend the program throughout the year to assist with monitoring, population counts and conflict-prevention. We happily complied! 

Mexican gray wolf pups coming out of their den.
Range Rider Partnerships

Defenders works in collaboration with ranchers in core wolf territories to improve monitoring wolves and livestock, while taking steps to deter wolves from approaching cattle and managing herds to minimize their vulnerability to predation. This program provides cost-share support to cooperating ranchers, placing range riders on ranches within wolf pack territories to help prevent conflicts through the use of nonlethal tools, such as airhorns, cracker shells and rubber bullets, and to assist with livestock-management practices, such as herding, carcass disposal (to reduce attractants), consolidated calving to minimize the potential for wolf-livestock interactions. Range riders and host ranchers also communicate with agency managers about wolf and livestock locations to inform other management strategies that can avoid conflicts. 

Wild mexican gray wolf pup 6 months old from Sheepherders Baseball Park Pack in New Mexico

Looking Forward

The increasing population of lobos is a testament to the hard work and dedication of everyone involved in this effort. But plenty of challenges still lie ahead. Improving partnerships among states, federal agencies, the White Mountain and San Carlos Apache tribes, non-profit groups, including Defenders of Wildlife, and a growing number of wolf country ranchers and private citizens who are working together to find solutions to long-standing and often divisive wolf-livestock conflicts provide an important roadmap for achieving and sustaining a growing wolf population.  

Mexican gray wolf
Wolf Conservation Center

While it is important to celebrate recent success, it is essential to recognize that more is needed to ensure successful recovery and to act accordingly.

The best-available science indicates that full recovery of the Mexican gray wolf requires at least three connected populations totaling approximately 750 individuals, a carefully managed reintroduction effort that prioritizes improving the genetic health of the animals, and the establishment of at least two additional population centers in the Southern Rockies and the Grand Canyon regions.

A lack of genetic diversity and increasing inbreeding within the wild population remains problematic. Political interference is preventing the release of genetically essential, well-bonded adult wolves, which could provide immediate relief to the wild population. Instead, brother and sister equivalents continue to reproduce and exacerbate the inbreeding problem. The states of Arizona and New Mexico must step up and encourage FWS to immediately release well-bonded, adult pairs from captivity. These pairs would introduce much-needed genetic material and would have a good chance at successful reproduction. If the states would like to see successful recovery of the Mexican gray wolf, as they have stated, then they must reverse their resistance to these releases and begin planning cooperative actions in partnership with the FWS now, while there is still time to save this struggling, genetically imperiled wild population. 

What You Can Do To Help

One of the best things you can do to help is to submit a letter to the editor of your local or regional newspaper. Many papers have published recent stories about the population increase and are considering response letters now. Please consider submitting a letter in support of the recovery effort and emphasize the following needs:

  • We have a moral, economic and scientific responsibility to restore endangered species like the Mexican gray wolf.
  • Public opinion polls, over and over, have shown that two-thirds of people who live in New Mexico and Arizona support Mexican wolf recovery. 
  • A 24% increase in the number of wolves is good news in a moment of so much bad news. Let’s celebrate the hard work of the captive breeding facilities, wildlife managers and their cooperators who are working together to create a future for Mexican gray wolves.
  • At the same time, Mexican gray wolves remain in a genetic crisis. The only way to ensure their survival is to rapidly improve the genetics of the wild population by releasing adult wolves from captivity. Without releasing adults, the wild population could crash very quickly due to its small size and inbreeding.
  • Cross-fostering wolves is an important tool to help save the Mexican gray wolf from extinction, but should not be used as an excuse to prevent the release of genetically essential, well-bonded captive adult wolves, who can provide immediate relief to the wild population
     
  • The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must do more to stop illegal killings of endangered Mexican gray wolves by increasing public acceptance of wolves, increasing penalties to dissuade wolf killers, and by accepting contemporary research on negative impacts of removing wolves that prey on cattle.
  • The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must revise the recovery plan and management rule to give Mexican wolves the greatest chance at success by establishing a recovery goal of at least three connected populations totaling approximately 750 individuals, and management protocols that support that goal. 

Author(s)

Craig Miller

Craig Miller

Senior Representative Arizona
Craig Miller is Defenders’ Senior Southwest Representative and has led Defenders’ regional wolf and jaguar conservation programs since 1993.
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