Cornered: Mexican wolf management to appease livestock producers may run out the clock on recovery
A golden eagle crouched against a band of rocks that abuts a cattle pen in the Gila National Forest catches the eye first, causing a pause to look for what’s brought the bird to the ground. The eagle doesn’t linger, disappearing rapidly amid the tops of ponderosas. On the far side of the cowpie-strewn basin, a reddish brown hulk has been draped over a downed tree. Once close enough to see that the cow’s hindquarters have been severed and its bare hip socket writhes with insects, the stench hits. From uphill and upwind, a game trail threading off into the woods appears. Follow it, and the trap snapping shut is silent, even as it misses clipping a heel. The teeth are so close together that none of the dark, rain-wet soil is visible between the thin rubber padding that covers the edges of the steel leg trap.
The wolf being hunted is M1396, named “Guardian” in an annual contest run by Lobos of the Southwest for Albuquerque schoolchildren to name 17 wolf pups born in 2014. “Guardian” was suggested by a sixth grader who wrote that he chose it “because wolves need a guardian to keep them safe and to help their population rise.” He hoped a wolf named Guardian would be “a good luck charm to all the other wolves out in the wild trying to survive” and a guardian of the species so it never goes extinct.
Last month, Guardian was caught in a leg trap, moved to a kennel and transported to a pen to live out his days.
He follows his brother, m1384, who the same contest had named “Century.” The pair of sixth graders who suggested the name wrote, “About 100 years ago there was a big abundance of Mexican gray wolves, and now they’re being reintroduced. This wolf species almost went extinct because of settlers that moved into their territory. … When the wolves had less territory to hunt, they would find it easy to hunt the settler’s cattle.” Those same settlers, the students’ essay continues, then felt afraid for themselves and their livestock, and so began killing the wolves, while no one thought about protecting the species.
Guardian and Century were both born to the Fox Mountain Pack, one of 19 packs roaming southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona. Earlier this year, Guardian was spotted with the Luna Pack female and was soon considered her mate and the new alpha male of that pack.
The Fox Mountain Pack has a history of livestock depredations, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the species’ recovery. The agency’s field reports from this spring suggest that behavior moved to the Luna Pack with Guardian, fueling the agency’s decision to trap him to prevent him from teaching those habits to the Luna Pack female. His removal left the female and her unknown number of pups without a partner in raising them; they depend on food the Fish and Wildlife Service now supplies her. Their hope is that she’ll re-match with her former mate, a male still roaming near her den. But it’s a gamble.
“Disturbing that pack at this point is risking the survival of the pups. It can even risk the survival of that female if she gets desperate and can’t hunt on her own the deer and the elk; she may go places she’s not supposed to go,” says Regina Mossotti, director of animal care and conservation at the Endangered Wolf Center in Missouri, the source of some of the pups moved from captive-born dens into wild ones this spring in an effort to increase genetic diversity.
“When you’re trying to increase the population of a critically endangered species, removal of any individual, especially when you’re down to just about 100 in the wild, is the opposite of what you want to do,” Mossotti says.
When a pair of wolves has whelped, the female stays with the puppies for the first few weeks before they’re able to leave the den she’s dug for them, and her mate and other pack members will bring her food.
Contrary to the snarling approach to first-dibs that might appear on Animal Planet, Mossotti says, “The pack eats together, and it’s kind of the all-for-one, one-for-all mentality. The pack is only as strong as each individual, and each individual is only as strong as the pack, so if anybody is weak or hurt or hungry, they can’t hunt, and if they can’t hunt, the whole pack suffers.”
“Alpha” is just a designation of leadership, like a mother and father lead a human family, she says. They protect and teach the next generation.
Disrupting that family by taking an alpha can mean the loss of the entire litter and force the female to leave her pups behind permanently so she can resume hunting for her own survival.
“It’s devastating to the pack to lose an alpha—it’s like it would be to your family. Imagine if you lost your mom or dad at a young age. That’s what these guys go through,” Mossotti says. “We think controlling wolf populations by shooting some of the members of the family will help reduce depredation on livestock or help them reduce their impact, but unfortunately ... especially if you lose an alpha, those alphas don’t get to teach the pack how to hunt for elk and deer, and the pups will get desperate. Really trying to keep the pack intact and having those leaders teach them how to hunt the right food is important. It’s vital to the success of the pack.”
Success is not how anyone would characterize Mexican wolf recovery at the moment. The latest population count saw a significant drop, from 110 wolves and eight breeding pairs in 2014 to 97 and six breeding pairs this year. Then two wolves died in the capture-and-count process. Heavy-handed management, like removing one of the Mexican wolves from the wild, says Michael Robinson, with the Center for Biological Diversity, is why this species is trending toward extinction.
Mexican wolves are considered one of the most endangered land mammals in North America, yet their reintroduction to the wild has been clouded by cattle grazing that overlays the area where these wolves have been expected to re-establish footing. Ranchers are keen to preserve their way of life and are, at times, disinterested in adopting new tools or practices in the name of keeping wolves from attacking their cattle. Conservationists come down firmly on the side of wolves, saying that it was their forest long before it was ours, and they have a right to be there.
More than 100 grazing allotments have been issued in the Gila National Forest area, and each allotment can allow for thousands of cattle to pass through the forest each year. The greater Gila area is also home to roughly 21,000 elk, according to the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish. But drive into the Gila, and one of the two of these will be far more visible.
It raises the question: Can we ever really have both, wolves and cattle, in the same woods?
“The Fish and Wildlife Service has taken it as an article of faith that you can,” says Robinson. The Center for Biological Diversity has repeatedly sued the federal government for mismanagement of Mexican wolf recovery, among other endangered species. “I’ve had ranchers tell me flat out that it’s either the wolves or them, that coexistence is impossible. I don’t think real coexistence has been tried.”
While humans work to answer that question, the genetic pool in a wild population that stems from just a few wolves caught before the species went extinct and was rebuilt in captivity grows more shallow, and the chance that pups will thrive decreases.
The Mexican Wolf/Livestock Coexistence Council convened a group of ranchers, tribal members, conservation advocates and other stakeholders 16 years after Mexican wolves were reintroduced to the wild to search for common ground and plan for how to have both animals on the landscape without constant killing—cattle killed and eaten, and wolves killed for having been hungry.
Wild Mexican wolves were eradicated by the early 1970s, then were listed as an endangered species in 1976, and formal reintroduction efforts began with 11 Mexican wolves in 1998.
“To say ranchers felt put upon by the arrival of the endangered Mexican gray wolf in Arizona and New Mexico is an understatement,” reads the 2014 strategic plan from the Mexican Wolf/Livestock Coexistence Council. “Livestock producers were already dealing with mountain lions, bears, coyotes, broken gates, widely fluctuating cattle prices, prolonged drought, and growing government bureaucracy. Then the wolves, which previous generations had fought hard to get rid of, were back. Along with these predators came livestock losses, more governmental rules and regulations, and worry.”
Since their reintroduction, population growth has been limited by, among other things, project-approved removals of wolves for depredating livestock or leaving the recovery area boundary, as well as “lawful and unlawful wolf mortalities,” according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Poaching continues to be an issue for Mexican wolves, with the federal government offering a reward of up to $10,000 for information leading to a conviction for shooting one—a bounty nongovernmental organizations have boosted with an additional pledge of $46,000.
To balance the cattle industry’s interests in the area, which date back centuries, the federal government compensates livestock producers by paying the current auction price for livestock and even paying for working dogs killed by wolves.
The Coexistence Council’s strategic plan shifted the approach to compensation so that it factors in some of the additional costs to ranchers, like undetected depredations when the cause of death can’t be determined or livestock has simply gone missing, as well as lost livestock weight and decreased reproductive rates that result from sharing their grazing acres with wolves. These “payments for presence” are calculated on a point system that accounts for whether the land or grazing lease is in wolf territory or a core area such as a den or rendezvous site, wolf pups born in the area that year have survived to Dec. 31, and the applicant has been using proactive measures to avoid conflict, as well as the number of livestock exposed.
About half of the council’s $600,000 budget goes to payments for presence, and half to support ranchers in deploying new technology to prevent depredations. Those funds can pay for range riders, a human presence that deters wolves, and for turbo fladry, temporary electric fencing with flagging. They can also fund efforts to time calving and use alternative pastures to shift cows and calves away from territory where wolves hunt, and even for supplemental hay. If a cow dies in the wild, that carcass can be laced with chemicals to make a wolf sick, and like any experience with food poisoning, that wolf will then avoid that food source.
“There’s so many tools in the tool box for conservationists to reduce conflicts between humans and wildlife that there’s no excuse not to coexist at this point,” Mossotti says.
Once depredations begin occurring, the end result for the wolf is often death or capture and a life in a pen.
“When it speaks to private property and private land, I get that. … I’ve been a longstanding supporter of relatively permissive management of wolves on private land. ... You should be able to protect your private property,” says Mike Phillips, director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund, which uses Ladder Ranch in southern New Mexico near the Gila to assist the Fish and Wildlife Service in management activities. The New Mexico Game Commission initially denied Ladder Ranch a permit renewal for holding captive Mexican wolves, but it has since allowed the facility to resume those activities, convening an emergency meeting to speed an approval to house a wolf family from Washington state while they waited for the female to whelp before releasing parents and pups into Mexico.
“Similarly, you could argue for a less permissive approach on public land,” Phillips says. “It is public grass, and you don’t have to graze your livestock there. ... We should view public resources on public land differently than we view public resources on private land and at the end of the day a wolf or wolf population is a public resource.”
Phillips has worked on every wolf recovery program in the country—Mexican gray wolves as well as gray wolves in Yellowstone and red wolves in North Carolina—and says the Mexican wolf program is one of the most challenging. He left work with the federal government to see what private lands can achieve in the way of protecting imperiled species.
“It’s just simply a truism that most wolves don’t depredate on livestock. The depredations on livestock are consistently misrepresented and consistently overblown,” Phillips says. “Wolf recovery has never been the burden on the livestock industry that it’s made out to be.”
That said, he adds, some individual producers may run on so narrow a profit margin that the loss of one or two cattle can make a big difference. Again, those losses are often covered by payments from the federal government.
“I don’t think it’s either wolves or livestock. That’s a ridiculous choice. And it’s not wolves and elk, that’s another ridiculous choice,” says Phillips. “There are problems, there are conflicts, and you need good people on the ground to work through the conflicts. … Here’s the truth: Wolves do not represent a danger to human safety. They just don’t. Wolves typically do not depredate on livestock. ... Wolves do not decimate game herds.”
He runs the numbers—wolves need an average of seven to 10 pounds of sustenance a day, or about the equivalent of one adult cow elk per month. So one wolf will eat about 15 adult cow elk every year. And again, there are an estimated 21,000 elk in the Gila area. If more than 600 wolves lived in that area, they wouldn’t consume half of the elk there.
“Gray wolves are an agenda problem,” Phillips says. “They are not as hard to coexist with as people would have you think. … These myths that drive us as a collective, they really matter, but sometimes they’re not right.”
Yet those myths continue to guide management decisions, including the latest released from US district court, which sided with the state in their efforts to obtain a temporary restraining order to prevent the Fish and Wildlife Service from releasing additional wolves. Judge William P Johnson ruled on June 10 that the Endangered Species Act does not require the service to release Mexican wolves into the wild, that it was simply the service’s choice to do so. As a result, the state’s ability to “monitor, manage and otherwise regulate” New Mexico’s wildlife suffered. Conservation advocates were stunned.
Though federal code permits the US secretary of the interior to pursue management activities to preserve the future of the species, that permission doesn’t “constitute a statutory responsibility,” Johnson wrote, and the federal government still needs to obtain permits from the state. Federal rules advise securing a permit from states, but in the event that can’t be secured, they allow the secretary to move forward, and that’s the basis by which the Fish and Wildlife Service has pursued releases despite protests from the state. That the federal agency has not updated the more-than-30-year-old plan for Mexican wolves and continues to operate that program as a “nonessential experimental population” also came back to bite, as the state was able to argue that a “nonessential experimental population,” by definition, can’t be necessary to the future of the species. Work has been underway on a formal Mexican wolf recovery plan since 1995, and the service only recently settled with conservation groups to commit to a timeline that dictates a November 2017 completion date.
“The service needs to put its foot down ... when the states are so willing to bully the service to get what they want,” says Eva Sargent, senior Southwest representative for Defenders of Wildlife. They need to stand by the science, Sargent argues. And science says that the species will suffer if its genetic diversity is not increased by adding more wolves to the wild population.
Mexican wolves went through a very small bottleneck. The entire population we have now—more than 250 in captivity and about 100 in the wild—is descended from just seven wild wolves captured in northern Mexico and that may well have been related. So the pool was never very deep, and it grows shallower with each generation. By comparison, the red wolf recovery program started its captive breeding program from 400 canids. The Yellowstone wolf program, now considered so successful the gray wolf has been removed from the endangered species list in several northwestern states and wolf hunts have resumed, began with 14 wolves captured from a wild population across Canada, adding to that with two more releases of 17 and 10, respectively. On a landscape that was rich with prey and secured from human causes of mortality—shooting—and that doesn’t see year-round livestock grazing like the Gila does, Phillips speculates, Yellowstone’s program might have succeeded with just the release of those initial 14 wolves. The Blue Range, where dozens of Mexican wolves have been released, just isn’t as problem-free a habitat for recovering an endangered wolf.
In Yellowstone, research has documented a ripple effect of benefits to the ecosystem since wolves were reintroduced in the mid-’90s, affecting species from fish to birds to beavers to aspen trees. Healthier riparian areas appear where elk and deer are nudged on from over-grazing by the press of hunting predators, and the overall health of the forest increases in ways that startled ecologists.
A study conducted to see if Mexican wolves had a similar ability to restore the landscapes around them landed in uncertainty; there simply weren’t enough wolves to know. But the stands of dead aspens and absence of aspen seedlings suggests an ecosystem in need of resuscitation. The Gila is one of the wildest places in the American West, a rarity for having been preserved to maintain its pristine character and known for its roadless areas, beloved by and adjacent to the wilderness area named for Aldo Leopold, legendary conservationist who once wrote, “There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot.” Yet not even the Gila can escape being reshaped by men and their livestock.
The goal, according to the USFWS’ “experimental population rule” for Mexican wolves, is a wild population of 300 to 325 Mexican wolves between I-40 and the Mexico border—and that’s a firm cap. More than that, and the agency could move wolves back into captivity or across the border into Mexico, which is also trying to recover the species.
A panel of scientists convened years ago proposed three populations for a total of about 750 wolves living as far north as Utah and Colorado. Resistance from the states involved was so vehement that the service has instead looked farther and farther south, across the Mexican border.
But successful recovery programs in the US have depended on massive tracts of public lands, and the majority of Mexican land is privately owned. Additionally, while US states maintain careful counts of elk and deer, there’s no similar data for potential prey in Mexico. Empirical evidence that Mexico won’t work would take years to establish, and the Mexican wolf population just doesn’t have that kind of time.
“The clock is not the Mexican wolf’s friend. When you have passed through such a profound genetic bottleneck, every generation that passes, you lose genetic diversity,” Phillips says. “There is no way, given these small numbers, that you ever gain any new diversity. All you can ever hope to do is slow the rate of loss. ... The rate of loss is notable, and we know, from countless studies, that eventually a genetically depauperate genome creates all kinds of problems for survival.”
What happens if management doesn’t move forward in a way that increases genetic diversity? For that visual, we have the now nearly nonexistent population of wolves on Isle Royale, Michigan. Climate change and shipping routes wiped out the ice bridge that once linked the island in Lake Superior to the mainland, stranding a population that once saw as many as 50 wolves. Just two wolves now remain—and they’re half-siblings as well as father and daughter. Their hopes of procreating are doomed. The island’s moose population, in the meantime, has been booming, another ecosystem swinging out of balance.
This year’s cross-fostering efforts saw unprecedented numbers, with six pups total added to three packs across Arizona and New Mexico—a very successful year, says Mossotti. The payoff for those successes is still years out, Robinson cautions, given that pups born this year won’t reproduce for at least two years, meaning an additional delay in diversifying the genes in a population now largely as genetically similar as siblings. But releasing parents and older siblings with those pups was considered too politically volatile in a year when the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish had refused to sign off on permits.
A Humane Society of the United States survey of state game commissions—to which 18 states responded—found that 73 percent of commissions are dominated by avid hunters, clearly unrepresentative of the state’s public they speak for, but in line with their funding source. In New Mexico, hunters, trappers and anglers who pay for fishing and hunting licenses—to the tune of some $20 million each year—support the state’s Department of Game and Fish.
“Wolves do not purchase hunting licenses, and most state wildlife managers draw their pay from revenue derived from sale of hunting, fishing, and trapping licenses. That, in brief, is what is wrong with wildlife management in America,” Ted Williams wrote in 1986, years before formal wolf reintroduction programs were underway.
Would ranchers ever stop objecting to sharing the landscape with wolves? Sure, Phillips says, for a price. He points to two universal solvents: water and money.
“Water can dissolve about anything, and money can dissolve any problem, if you have enough,” he says. “The problem is, you typically don’t have sufficient funds to simply buy your way out of a bind.”