Mexican Gray Wolves Gain Ground

by Heidi Ridgley



When it comes to endangered Mexican gray wolves in the Southwest every one counts—and so do partnerships. This year’s boost in numbers—from 50 wolves and two breeding pairs in 2010 to 58 wolves and six breeding pairs in 2011—signals that helping ranchers with portable fencing, guard dogs and range riders is working to protect livestock and the lobos.

The increase comes as good news for these highly endangered animals, but the small population of 58 wolves is still extremely vulnerable,” says Eva Sargent, Defenders’ Southwest program director and Mexican gray wolf expert. “Wolves are smart, adaptable animals, but they can’t make it alone. New releases of wolves in Arizona and New Mexico are urgently needed to strengthen the gene pool and ensure a healthy population.”

Wild and Wonderful Wolf

Wolves can captivate, thrill and enchant us. But their true power lies in the way their presence can restore an ecosystem. 

Wolves returned to Yellowstone National Park 15 years ago, after a predator-control program in the early 20th century killed the last wolf in 1926. In their absence, elk populations exploded beyond the park’s carrying capacity. Elk so heavily browsed the landscape that the growth of their favorite food—aspen—ground to a halt by the mid- to late-1900s. 

Today, with wolves bringing elk numbers back to sustainable levels, aspen, cottonwood and willow grow taller and thicker in many areas of the park, according to a new report by two Oregon State University scientists, William Ripple and Robert Beschta. 

Among their findings:

  • By 2010, some aspen and cottonwood had grown tall enough that they were no longer susceptible to browsing, and willow was also growing taller in places. More willow is providing habitat for a greater diversity and abundance of songbirds, such as the common yellowthroat, warbling vireo and song sparrow.
  • Beaver colonies have grown, improving habitat for birds and fish. 
  • Coyote numbers have dropped, leaving more small mammals as prey for others such as red foxes, bald eagles and badgers. 

“These are the early stages of recovery, and some of this may still take decades,” says Ripple, the study’s lead author and a professor in the Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society. 

Whether a similar recovery can be expected in other areas, especially on public lands outside national parks, is less clear. “To be ecologically effective, wolves most likely need to be present in relatively large numbers,” he says. “To make that possible outside the park, we need to improve the way we deal with human and wolf conflicts.”

Enter Defenders of Wildlife, a leader of predator coexistence projects in the West. “Figuring out how to live with wildlife is the only way to achieve full and long-term species recovery, and it is a top priority for Defenders,” says Suzanne Stone, Defenders’ Northern Rockies representative.  “We work with ranchers, showing them it’s possible to deter wolves without killing them.” 

Techniques include guard dogs and range riders, erecting electric fencing and temporary night corrals for grazing animals on the move and practicing better animal husbandry, such as removing carcass piles and ensuring calving grounds are far from known wolf dens. 

“The health of ecosystems depends on large predators, and they need our help—and acceptance—to survive,” says Stone.

California Dreamin’ Come True

After leaving the Imnaha pack in northeastern Oregon, this lone 2 1/2-year-old male wolf wandered more than 1,000 miles and crossed into California on Dec. 28. Called OR7, he is a direct descendant of the 66 wolves released in Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho in the mid-1990s, and the first wild wolf in the Golden State since the last wolves were shot and trapped out of existence in the early 1920s. His brother, OR9, also left the pack but traveled east to Idaho, where he was killed by a hunter with an expired license in February.

As in other states in the West, Defenders stepped up to help California wildlife agencies welcome the wolf home by sharing tried-and-true tactics that allow people and wolves to share the landscape.


Only select articles from Defenders are available online. To receive 4 issues annually of the full award-winning magazine, become a member of Defenders of Wildlife!


More Articles From This Issue

Shoring Up the Red Knot

Conservationists rush to save a bird on the brink

Worth Defending

California sea otter

Righting a Wronged Whale

Defenders strives to lessen the deaths caused by commercial fisheries

Granting Safe Passage to Panthers

New roadside detectors in Florida help the big cats get to the other side

Living Lightly

Say it with wildlife-friendly flowers


Get Updates and Alerts