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Sanctioned wolf shooting illustrates reintroduction woes

by Bob Berwyn

Politics, not science, guiding decisions on additional wolf releases in the Southwest, as livestock industry continues knee jerk opposition

SUMMIT COUNTY — This week’s sanctioned shooting of an endangered Mexican gray wolf — at the direction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — highlights some of the major problems with the stuttering effort to restore a viable self-sustaining population of the predators in the desert Southwest.

“This very sad episode is a result of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s refusal to release enough wolves into the wild to allow this single female to find a mate of her own kind,” said Michael Robinson, a wolf restoration advocated with the Center for Biological Diversity.

Only about 50 wolves remain in the wild, with only two known reproducing pairs, and during the Obama administration not a single wolf has been released from the captive breeding facilities where biologists are trying to ensure healthy genetic diversity in the struggling wild population. Visit this USFWS website to see all the documents relating to the recovery effort.

The lone 4-year-old female wolf was reportedly attracted to a private residence within the Gila National Forest, where she consorted with domestic dogs The wolf was shot Wednesday as a purported threat to human safety.

The wolves are classified as a non-essential experimental population, which gives wildlife managers wide leeway to kill wolves deemed to be a threat.

But Robinson said he’s not willing to take the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at its word in this case.

“We’ll be filing a Freedom of Information Act request to try and determine the exact circumstances,” Robinson said.

There’s good reason for the skepticism on his part, as some livestock and ranching interests have all but vowed to eliminate wolves from the area — even as cattle losses have dropped to very low levels.

Earlier this year the same wolf had mated with a dog elsewhere and given birth to five hybrid pups, four of which were captured and euthanized; the fifth has not been found.

The 1996 environmental impact statement on reintroducing Mexican wolves to the wild addressed potential hybridization and promised to minimize it in part through “reestablishing wolf populations in numbers sufficient that potential wolf mates are available for dispersing wolves.” But this has not occurred.

The document projected that by the end of 2006, 102 wolves, including 18 breeding pairs, would live in the wild, with the numbers expected to continue to rise after that.

A 2001 scientific review concluded that the recovery area spanning the Arizona and New Mexico border had sufficient deer and elk to be able to support 468 wolves. Yet the highest number of wolves counted was 59 in 2006; at the end of 2010, only 50 wolves, including just two breeding pairs, could be found in the wild.

Despite this shortfall, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has only released a single wolf from the captive breeding program in the past five years (in Nov. 2008), along with 11 wolves captured from the wild in previous years.

Dozens of other wolves were captured and have been indefinitely locked up (and 11 other wolves were shot by the government for livestock depredations, though none in the past four years). Today, 12 once-wild wolves are biologically suitable and legally eligible for release into New Mexico.

“This lonesome wolf did not have to die,” said Robinson. “If there were enough potential mates for her to choose from, this social creature wouldn’t have desperately sought the company of domestic dogs. “To ensure another wolf doesn’t pay the same price, the Obama administration must release more wolves into the wild.”

Mexican gray wolves have been on the endangered species list since 1976, just three years after the Endangered Species Act was passed by Congress.