Today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service revealed that at least 163 Mexican gray wolves survive in the wilds of southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona. The annual count shows an increase of 32 individuals since last year’s total documented count of 131. The Mexican Wolf Interagency Field Team deployed in January and found 76 wolves in Arizona and 87 in New Mexico.
This increase marks a step in the right direction, away from extinction and toward recovery – despite many challenges. The fact that lobos are doing as well as they are comes in spite of inadequate and even hostile action from the agencies tasked with their recovery, a border wall blocking gene exchange with their relatives in Mexico, and archaic trapping rules in New Mexico that risk injury and death to wolves every trapping season.
In 2018, Western Environmental Law Center and WildEarth Guardians defeated the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in court over the agency’s Mexican wolf management rule (called the 10(j) rule). A federal judge found that the rule “fails to further the conservation of the Mexican wolf.” That rule is now being rewritten. Additionally, groups have had to sue over the 2017 Mexican wolf recovery plan, which departs from the best available science and includes a slew of politically motivated obstacles impeding actual recovery for the iconic lobo.
“While the population count is encouraging, we are far from penning a recovery success story for this critically imperiled species,” said Kelly Nokes, Shared Earth wildlife attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center. “The Service must stop consenting to the bullying tactics of state game departments antagonistic to restoring Mexican wolves to the landscape, and instead fulfill its legal duty under the Endangered Species Act to protect lobos from the dire threats they face now and in the future.”
In addition, the Mexican wolf has rebounded somewhat despite arbitrary political boundaries that impede migration desperately needed to expand the lobo’s gene pool in the U.S. President Trump’s border wall threatens to entirely sever connections between the wild population in the U.S. and the wild population in Mexico. Mexican wolves are in urgent need of genetic diversification to improve their chances for survival – the entire population is descended from just seven individuals and the genetic health of the wild population is shown to be in decline.
“Mexican wolves are slowly coming back from the brink of extinction just as a new threat to their survival is looming,” said Kevin Bixby, executive director of the Southwest Environmental Center. “The Trump administration’s plan to seal off the entire U.S./Mexico border in Arizona and New Mexico with a 30-foot wall this year will make it impossible for the recovering but still tenuous populations of lobos in each country to interbreed and exchange genes with each other. Without that connection, the fate of this iconic species remains in doubt.”
“Lobos are showing that they belong in this region—that they are resilient in spite of mismanagement and hostility,” said Christopher Smith, southern Rockies wildlife advocate for WildEarth Guardians. “Just think what their recovery might look like if we removed some of the obstacles that are put in front of them, like leghold traps on New Mexico public lands.”
The steady, albeit slow, growth of the wild population indicates that Mexican wolves are doing well to overcome the human-created roadblocks on the path to recovery. Advocates point to the need for a superior management rule, urgent genetic diversification via the release of well-bonded adult wolves with pups, and more cooperation from states in fighting human-caused mortalities as the keys to real, expedited recovery.
The lobo, or Mexican wolf, is the smallest, most genetically distinct, and one of the rarest subspecies of gray wolf. The species was listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1978, but recovery efforts have largely foundered because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has yet to implement scientifically recommended recovery actions.
Although lobos once widely roamed across the southwestern U.S. and Mexico, the Mexican wolf was purposefully eradicated from the U.S on behalf of American livestock, hunting, and trapping interests. Recognizing the Mexican gray wolf’s extreme risk of extinction, the Service listed it on the federal endangered species list in 1976.
In 1998, after the few remaining Mexican wolves were put into captivity in an attempt to save the species, the Service released 11 lobos to a small area on the border of Arizona and New Mexico now known as the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area. The program has limped along ever since, with illegal killings and sanctioned removals subverting recovery.
Mexican wolves are at tremendous risk due to Trump’s border wall, their limited gene pool, threats from trapping, Wildlife Services’ activities, illegal killings, and small population size.