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AZ: Competing interests leave Mexican gray wolf recovery efforts at a crossroads

Debra Utacia Krol, Arizona Republic

Three decades into a troubled attempt to reintroduce Mexican gray wolves to their native habitat, more than 60 leading environmentalists and scientists have called on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to revamp its wolf management plan and, in effect, start over.

In the letter, dated Oct. 16, the groups urged the agency to create an “entirely new approach to management and recovery of Mexican wolves — an approach based on science, acknowledgement of past shortcomings, humaneness, and a precautionary approach to management of a genetically unique and genetically depleted regional subspecies.”

The organizations and scientists referred to a March 2018 ruling by U.S. District Judge Jennifer Zipps that directed the Fish and Wildlife Service to revamp its wolf management plan because it “fails to further the long-term recovery of the Mexican wolf.”

“Time is running out for the critically endangered Mexican wolves,” David Parsons, a retired Fish and Wildlife Service Mexican Wolf Recovery coordinator said in a statement released with the letter.

“This time the Fish and Wildlife Service must get it right — follow the law, follow the science, and push back on the political interference. … The wolves know best where to live and what their ecologically effective population size should be.”

The letter is the latest twist in a more than 30-year struggle between environmentalists, ranchers and government agencies over the fate of one of the world’s most endangered wolf species. Few people appear to be satisfied with how the recovery effort is proceeding but stakeholders differ about how to change things.

The road to any sort of recovery appears to lead through a widening range of alternatives, including steps to increase genetic diversity and compensate ranchers for their losses, all the while staying within the limits of a government program. 

The latest wolf recovery plan, a revision of the original 1982 document, was issued in November 2017. Environmental groups and scientists responded with a lawsuit based on what they say is a flawed plan that ignored the recommendations of experts, including some who helped craft earlier plans.

The environmentalists and scientists maintain that wolves are a critical element of a healthy, thriving ecosystem.

“Wolves are a key species,” says Linda Searles, executive director of Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center in Scottsdale. She received the center’s first Mexican gray wolf in 1994.Get the Law & Order newsletter in your inbox.

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Wolves regulate the number of prey species, including deer and elk, which allows for greater plant growth and diversity, according to a 2010 paper by Daniel S. Licht, a wildlife biologist with the National Park Service, and three other scientists. Wolves also support the overall health of prey herds by eliminating weak and ill animals.

Mexican gray wolf at Phoenix Zoo.

Mexican gray wolf at Phoenix Zoo. (Photo: Nick Oza/The Republic)

Reducing deer and elk populations helps increase the numbers of other animals, such as birds and beavers, by allowing their denuded habitat and food sources to regenerate, the report said. More abundant trees and grasses also support healthy watersheds, which then support better stream flow into the larger rivers and eventually increase water supplies.

The carcasses left behind by a wolf kill supports scavengers, including vultures and carrion beetles. Other species like eagles and ravens also include carrion as part of their diets. The paper also points out that wolves roaming the land can decrease the numbers of coyotes and alter their behavior, which in turn influence other animal populations.

Environmentalists point to successful reestablishment of wolves in the northern woodlands and within Yellowstone National Park as proof of how returning these predators to the wild can ultimately support ecological restoration.

“They’re exceptionally important in the ecosystem,” said Searles. “We see what happened in Yellowstone when they were reintroduced.”

Wolves start recovery from virtual extinction

After the gray wolf was listed as an endangered species in 1978, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service became the lead federal agency in returning the species to its natural habitats, including the Southwest, Rocky Mountains and western Great Lakes areas of the contiguous U.S.

Although wolf populations are recovering in other areas, efforts to reestablish the Mexican gray wolf, a regional subspecies, haven’t had the same level of success.

The first 11 Mexican wolves were released into the wild in 1998, on mostly federal lands along the Arizona-New Mexico border designated as the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area. This 6,800-acre parcel is part of a larger geographic region known at the Mexican Wolf Experimental Population Area, which encompassed the lower two-thirds of Arizona and New Mexico south of Interstate 40. 

From 1998 to 2016, 108 wolves were released into the wild, and 120 more were moved between pack territories, according to a 2017 report from the Fish and Wildlife Service.

In January 2019, officials counted 131 wolves in the wild, 64 in Arizona and 67 in New Mexico. That’s a 12% increase over 2017 numbers. Still, 21 wolves were found dead in 2018. (Packs living on tribal lands are not included in the Mexican wolf reports due to confidentiality agreements.)

Members of a field team from state and federal wildlife agencies prepare to release Mexican gray wolf pups in the wilds during a recent outing.

Environmentalists point to continuing wolf deaths and other factors as to why there aren’t more roaming the habitat. Humans continue to be the biggest threat to the Mexican wolves’ recovery.

According to records obtained by The Arizona Republic through a federal Freedom of Information Act request, 15 of 24 wolf autopsy reports from 2013 to 2018 were found to be human-caused, by gunshots, vehicle collisions or snare trapping. Only three 2018 wolf death reports have been received so far.

Because Mexican gray wolves in the wild are listed as a “non-essential experimental population,” removing so-called nuisance wolves has been allowed, up to what’s called by regulators a “lethal take.”

Killing a wolf without permission from the wolf management team or without proving that the wolf posed an immediate threat to humans or animal is still a violation of the Endangered Species Act.

A person convicted of illegally killing a wolf can be fined $50,000 and sentenced to a year in prison.

Despite the many human-caused wolf deaths, few people are punished in the cases. 

In 2018, a New Mexican rancher lost his grazing permits after he trapped and killed a Mexican wolf.

Rules panned by environmentalists, ranchers

The November 2017 plan provided for the release of wolf families, known as packs, from captivity into the wild, but other provisions roused wolf advocates’ ire. Among other tactics, the plan calls for just two wild populations in the U.S. and Mexico. And it restricts wolves to the region south of I-40.

Michael Robinson, senior conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity pointed out that the last captive release occurred in 2006. And, he said, there should be at least three distinct populations for both geographic and genetic separation.

There’s also the issue of how best to release wolves back into the wild. In 2016, the Fish and Wildlife Service decided to place newborn pups from captive litters into the dens of wild families instead of releasing captive adult wolves or packs.

Over the next four years, the wolf recovery team has placed 30 pups. However, Robinson said, “From available data, we know that five out of 18 pups have survived and two of them to adulthood, which amounts to a minimal 27.78% survival rate.”

Mexican gray wolf at Phoenix Zoo.

Mexican gray wolf at Phoenix Zoo. (Photo: Nick Oza/The Republic)

Maggie Dwire, a federal biologist with the wolf program, notes that the cross-fostered pup survival rates mirror those of wild-born pups.

“Only about 50% reach their first year,” said Dwire. “And only about 34% survive to adulthood at age 2.”

The pups from both dens need to be born within just a few days of each other to be successful. The pups must be placed with the wild den when they’re under 14 days old, when their eyes open. And that requires a rapid yet delicate dance to rush the pups to their new homes, sometimes hand-feeding the tiny creatures during the trip.

But the agencies will continue the program. In 2020, the wolf recovery teams will closely observe 26 possible mated pairs during the spring for evidence that they’ve produced pups. The same number of captive pairs will be bred with the hopes that some of those pups can be fostered in wild dens.

Some ranchers are equally frustrated with the recovery plans and implementation.

“My first run-in with wolves was in 2002,” said Corey Dobson, who runs cattle and sheep on his family’s 5,000-acre ranch west of Eagar and more than 230,000 acres of federal and state lands.

“A stud colt was killed in a horse barn on my land,” he said. “I thought that my two Great Pyrenees guard dogs had gotten the calf.”

Dobson put them down, only to learn that there were wolves in the area.

“I lost two $2,000 dogs and a colt that I paid $2,500 for a stud fee to produce,” he said. “Nobody had let me know there were wolves in the area.”

Dobson said he had to fight to be included in outreach.

“The feds told me that they were contacting people who lived within a 3-mile zone (of wolf releases),” he said. “But wolves can travel 50 miles in a day.” And while outreach has greatly improved, Dobson said he still doesn’t trust the Fish and Wildlife Service.  

Dobson said that if he had his way, “The wolves would be gone.”

Although Robinson disagrees with Dobson’s wish for a forest without wolves, he does agree with the rancher on one thing: “The real problem is with Fish and Wildlife Service’s management,” he said.

Genetic diversity, or the lack of it, looms 

One factor that everybody involved in Mexican wolf recovery efforts agrees on is the lack of genetic diversity in the wild population. Every Mexican gray wolf living today descends from the last seven of their kind, captured between 1961 and 1980 in a last-ditch effort to save the species.

Over the years, a consortium of wolf conservation centers, zoos and the Fish and Wildlife Service have worked to expand the gene pool, using a tool called the studbook.

The document tracks every known Mexican gray wolf since the breeding program started, and charts genetic composition, lifespan and mortality reports, if the wolf dies.

With so few genetic lines to recreate the species, wolf biologists must carefully choose mating pairs to expand the gene pool and decrease the number of closely-related wolves mating. Dwire compares the studbook matching to “online computer dating.”

This effort is seen as vital to the species’ survival. The Fish and Wildlife Service Mexican wolf release plan concedes that wolves living in the wild have such low genetic diversity that, in effect, mating occurs between wolves whose genomes are so close that they could be brother and sister. That leads to inbreeding, which results in lower general fitness, fewer pups surviving to adulthood and sicker wolves.

Mexican gray wolf at Phoenix Zoo.

Mexican gray wolf at Phoenix Zoo. (Photo: Nick Oza/The Republic)

Philip Hedrick and Richard Hendrickson, biologists who were involved in early planning, agree that inbreeding is at crisis levels. Hedrick said the practice of feeding denning moms to keep depredations down and increase pup survival is making the problem worse.

“Since 2009, wild wolves have been supplementally fed,” said Hedrick. “Although the survival of pups is increased, you may have even more inbreeding now.” That’s because the wolves stick around and mate with each other instead of moving on to find new mates.

“You want genetic variation for future adaptation,” said Hedrick. “That will make them more resistant to diseases from dogs or environmental changes. Inbred wolves really can’t adapt well in the wild.”

Some environmentalists and wolf experts say the Fish and Wildlife Service and its Arizona and New Mexico agency partners are impeding that process. Robinson noted one case in 2004.

“The Saddle Pack alpha male was deemed genetically irreplaceable,” said Robinson, “but Fish and Wildlife shot him dead anyway.”

The wolf, also known as Wolf M574, was intended to be recaptured, but eluded trappers. Robinson said some captive wolves are never bred and die of old age before passing their genetic heritage on. 

Mexican gray wolf at Phoenix Zoo.

Mexican gray wolf at Phoenix Zoo. (Photo: Nick Oza/The Republic)

Artificial insemination could help solve the problem of salvaging Mexican wolves’ genetic diversity. It’s used to bolster both genetic diversity and overall population numbers. Wolf centers have collected semen and female oocytes from ovaries for about 25 years to preserve their genomes.

In Scottsdale, Searles said that wolves who come to live out their lives at the Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center also contribute to the reproductive bank, housed at the Saint Louis Zoo. Female wolves who are past breeding age are spayed, and their ovaries are sent to the zoo’s repository for storage. Each February, semen is collected from male wolves.

“The wolves have a very short breeding lifespan,” Searles said. “We want to try and capture (their genetics) because once it’s lost, it’s lost forever.”

Several pups have been born over the past several years from insemination, and in 2007, the Endangered Wolf Center celebrated the first birth of a pup conceived with frozen semen in partnership with the Saint Louis Zoo.

“We were the first facility to perform live semen implantation,” said Regina Mossotti, director of animal care and conservation at the center, located in Missouri.

Mexican gray wolf at Phoenix Zoo.

Mexican gray wolf at Phoenix Zoo. (Photo: Nick Oza/The Republic)

She’s also a member of the management team for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan, which develops and manages the wolf studbook and breeding plans. The Endangered Wolf Center is one of several zoos and sanctuaries that participate in the recovery effort. 

Dwire said the pup cross-fostering program should also bolster the wolves’ gene pool.

“We understand that observing the genetic benefit of those releases takes time,” she said. “It can take a while to turn around a big ship.” Dwire expects to see increased diversity over several generations of matings.

The result of all these strategies is that the wild population still is far under what scientists consider sustainable. Frederickson, the biologist, calculated that a minimum of 750 wolves should be the goal; the 2017 plan calls for removing the Mexican gray wolf from the endangered species list when the population averages 320 wolves over an 8-year period.

Wolf program has constraints

Wolf recovery managers are aware of the objections but point to what they say is the real-life scenario: Mexican gray wolves, or wolves in general, aren’t universally welcome.

“Wolves have always been controversial,” said Frederickson.

“We want wolves out there too,” said Jim deVos, assistant director of wildlife management at the Arizona Game and Fish Department. “Some people aren’t happy about the wolves.” He’s also cognizant of the strong feelings some have for the species. “We strive to create a balance to both recover wolves and create social tolerance,” deVos said.

The agencies say the cross-fostering program is one way to create more social tolerance. Arizona Game and Fish supports the cross-fostering program because, as deVos said, “The pups are cute, and they’ll learn how to be wild.”

He said released adult wolves are more prone to encounter humans and kill livestock than wolves reared in the wild.

“The wolves in captivity don’t know how to kill their own food,” said deVos. They’re also more acclimated to humans after living in a sanctuary or zoo. 

Dwire agreed with deVos’s assessment. “Captive-released wolves tend to exhibit nuisance behavior and require intensive and sustained management for several months,” she said. “The need for extra management impacts not only our field staff but the stakeholders and people living in the area.”

On the other hand, Dwire said, “Neonates are raised by wild wolves and learn wild behavior.”  

It’s not all bad news 

As debates continue over how best to restore one of the Southwest’s key species, one group works to break down philosophical walls.

The environmental organization Defenders of Wildlife created the Mexican Wolf/Livestock Coexistence Council to bring ranchers, farmers and wolf recovery advocates together. The goal: Create a healthy ecosystem that includes wolves while sustaining agriculture and a multi-generational way of life.

Defenders of Wildlife was the first organization to offer indemnity payments to livestock owners who lost animals, said Craig Miller, senior Southwest representative for the organization.

“We noticed that some ranchers had more losses,” said Miller, “so we would partner with that rancher or ranchers to hire additional cowboys to obtain more information and develop a plan.”

The plan that the Coexistence Council developed involves supporting ranchers and farmers with prevention programs. They hire and pay range riders, often the children of local ranchers who work summers monitoring herds and watching for wolves. The council raises funds to support other predation prevention measures like building temporary electric fences with flags to ward off wolves and moving livestock to alternative pastures when wolves are near.

The council also promotes timed calving, in which cows are bred and kept under watch at certain times of the year to better protect vulnerable calves. And the group is still helping with in indemnity payments when a wolf makes a kill.

“We found that supporting cowboys was really valuable for ranchers, wolves and the agencies,” Miller said. “When wolves depredate livestock, you end up with dead cattle and wolves, upset ranchers and disappointed conservationists.”

Miller noted that wolf scientists and volunteers are just as hard-working and dedicated to their mission as the ranchers who have lived and worked the land for more than a century.

And, he said, just like ranchers who mourn over a deceased prize heifer or stud horse, wolf advocates — and wolves — mourn over a lost wolf. Searles noted that after a female wolf died at Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center, her mate howled for days in mourning. 

Meanwhile, the state of New Mexico officially rejoined the Mexican gray wolf recovery program Oct. 25.

Mexican gray wolf at Phoenix Zoo.

Mexican gray wolf at Phoenix Zoo. (Photo: Nick Oza/The Republic)

“It’s a good sign that they want to participate,” said Robinson. “It’s a welcome reversal of the Martinez administration’s venomous anti-wolf advocacy.”

Gov. Susana Martinez’s term was marked by incidents such as a lawsuit brought by the state against the Fish and Wildlife Service to remove captive-born wolf pups who had been released to the wild even though it would be too late for their biological mothers to accept them back. New Mexico lost that case.  

“Ultimately, however, the wolves don’t care which agencies are on the field team and on the conference calls making decisions,” Robinson said. 

“It will all depend on whether the new administration under Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the New Mexico Game Commission pushes the Fish and Wildlife Service to stop trapping and shooting wolves and to resume releases of well-bonded pairs with pups,” he said. “Otherwise, the state will just serve as enablers for the feds’ misguided management.”

Suggestions for change

Robinson would like to see the next plan, due from the Fish and Wildlife Service by May 17, 2021, based more on science.

“We need to recommence releases of breeding pairs and families,” he said. “Don’t allow any more genetic dead ends like the Saddle Pack male with the superior genome.”

Hedrick agreed with Robinson, saying, “Increased releases would ensure success.”

Robinson added that wolves should be allowed to migrate north of I-40 to create more geographic diversity.

Miller, of Defenders of Wildlife, intends to keep working with ranchers and other local residents within the wolf range to prevent depredations and increase tolerance of the wolves.

“We must deal with the dynamic that some people hate cattle and others hate wolves,” Miller said. “But we have much in common and it behooves us to develop programs in partnership with each other. After all, solving problems is part of both agriculture and environmentalism.”

Searles said that people should learn to live with the wildlife around them. “Re-wild your heart,” she said, “and learn to appreciate (the wild). Plants and animals can live without humans, but humans can’t live without plants and animals.

“I’d hate to see my grandchildren grow up in a world without wolves.”

Reach the reporter at or at 602-444-8490. Follow her on Twitter at @debkrol. 

Environmental coverage on and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow The Republic environmental reporting team at, OurGrandAZ on Facebook, or AZCenviornment at Twitter and Instagram.+