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An Endangered Lobo Crossed I-40, Now What?

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An endangered Mexican gray wolf known as f2754 (and named “Asha” by schoolchildren in an annual Pup Naming Contest) recently crossed a northern boundary in New Mexico that wildlife officials have been attempting to maintain for years, sparking conversation around the importance of these boundaries as wildlife personnel and wolf advocates continue to try to rebuild the critically endangered population.

This isn’t the first time this issue has arisen, in fact, we’d like to see Mexican gray wolves included in Colorado’s wolf restoration plans as well. But with this natural movement from the young she-wolf, who isolated herself from the Rocky Prairie pack at the end of 2022, wildlife officials in New Mexico are pondering how to handle it. Around this time last year, male wolf m2520, aka Anubis, was shot and killed near Flagstaff, AZ, after he too ventured out of the southwestern corridor that includes land right outside of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, the Gila National Forest and the Fort Apache Indian Reservation.

Because of the 1998 ruling, called the 10(j) rule, that established these boundaries, when wolves venture outside of the recovery area, wildlife officials are supposed to trap them and re-release them back within the boundaries. That happened initially with Anubis in August of 2021, but he immediately roamed again past the I-40 boundary and was back near Flagstaff by October of the same year. His journey was proof to wolf advocates that confining Mexican gray wolves to such a narrow range isn’t the best practice as recovery efforts continue to try to expand their numbers.

Mexican wolves once ranged across New Mexico, Arizona, west Texas, northern Mexico, and possibly as far north as southern Utah and Colorado. Humans nearly wiped out Mexican wolves before they were established as endangered in 1976, and it’s been a slow journey to get their numbers up to the 196 wild wolves that the last census in 2021 counted.

Are Limits Hurting Recovery?

The leading science today is clear: several separate, yet connected wolf populations need to be established in order for recovery to be successful. If Mexican gray wolves continue to be shoehorned into the narrow stretch below I-40, it’s extremely unlikely the recovery efforts are going to see the expanse needed to truly allow Lobos to regain a proper foothold. Biologist Carlos Caroll, who helped draft the 2012 wolf recovery plan for the USFWS, proposed “no fewer than three populations of at least 250 wolves each, totaling 750 throughout the region,” according to the Arizona Republic article on the subject written in Fall 2021.

The reasons for this center around genetic diversity and risk-management. It makes sense, if one large group of wolves in one area were to get a contagious disease, it would likely run through the whole population. If a genetically diverse smattering of several groups of wolves is spread across a larger area, that’s much less likely.

In a few months, the 2022 Mexican gray wolf population numbers will come out, and they will likely be similar to the 2021 numbers, if not slightly higher, but the real question that should continue to be asked is whether or not we can expect those numbers to truly reach sustainability in the limited space they’ve been allotted.

As for Asha, wildlife officials are still mulling their options while conservation groups like ours continue to advocate for letting the wolves naturally migrate into the Grand Canyon, southern Rockies, and wherever they might naturally succeed without human intervention.