Mexican Wolves Breaking Through Despite Arbitrary Limits In New Mexico
Last week, Mexican gray wolves, aka Lobos, broke through an impressive threshold: sprinting past 200 wild wolves in New Mexico and Arizona. While we’re thrilled at this progress, and with the WCC’s contributions through cross-fostering efforts, and volunteer work, we can’t help but notice that management policies in New Mexico still create arbitrary barriers for wolves, that don’t seem to apply to other animals within their jurisdiction.
In 2021, The Interagency Field Team (IFT) placed a record 22 captive-born pups into seven wild dens (a process called “cross fostering”) to boost the genetic diversity in the wild population. An additional 11 pups were cross fostered in 2022. This process ideally allows for genetic diversity in wild populations, though it’s not without its complications, for example, a quarterly Mexican gray wolf report last year showed that F1889 who was originally cross fostered from the HooDoo Pack, became classified as a single wolf in September after her collar data showed she’s been traveling alone for at least 3 months.
That said, cross-fostering is an important tool in the toolbox for rebuilding Mexican gray wolf populations back from extinction, and the WCC, as a member of the Saving Animals From Extinction (SAFE) plan with USFWS has had our own role to play in this process. While we’re patiently waiting to see which mating pairs produce pups this spring (you can see Trumpet and Lighthawk’s webcam here), several WCC-born pups have already been cross-fostered, including Crumbo last spring. On May 12, 2022 the female pup nicknamed Crumbo, was flown to New Mexico and successfully placed in the den of the Iron Creek wild wolf pack, where the breeding female had recently given birth to her own litter. Crumbo now will have the opportunity to live a life in the wild, as nature intended, and hopefully one day breed pups of her own.
Cross Foster Limitations
Since USFWS’s cross-fostering initiative began in 2014, four cross-fostered wolves have reproduced in the wild, and others showed signs of denning behavior, but it can’t be the only relied upon method to enhance genetic diversity in the American southwest. USFWS intends to continue relying on the cross-foster method alone to improve genetic diversity and reduce extinction risks for wild Mexican gray wolves. However, unless those cross-fostered wolves successfully reproduce, those animals have zero impact on the wild population’s genetic health.
It’s important to note that cross-fosters alone are not enough to augment the genetic health of the wild lobo population. Individuals within the wild population are as related to one another as full siblings – a crisis that cannot be solved simply through cross-fosters. Mexican gray wolf recovery demands releasing more family groups (well-bonded adult pairs with pups) into the wild too.
Currently, USFWS limits the geographic extent of Mexican gray wolves to areas south of I-40 in Arizona and New Mexico because USFWS officials believe the lobo’s “historical range” lies below the interstate.
This process was on full display earlier this year when Mexican gray wolf Asha was relocated after she ventured north of the I-40 border.
As stated in a press release co-signed by us: “The Mexican gray wolf is the only endangered species that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has committed through regulation to confining within an arbitrary geographic zone. Independent scientists have determined that recovery of this critically imperiled subspecies, and in particular supplementing its depauperate gene pool, will require establishment of three connected populations totaling at least 750 animals. The scientists determined that two of such necessary populations could find sufficient habitat in the Grand Canyon ecoregion and in the southern Rocky Mountains – both of them north of I-40.”
This decision to limit the Mexican gray wolf’s geographic range is contrarian to the way other wildlife species have been managed in Arizona and New Mexico, namely the South African oryx, Persian ibex, et Barbary sheep, which were imported from southern Africa, Iran, and northern Africa respectively between 1940–1980 for sport hunting. These ungulate species have zero historical range in New Mexico, and yet populations of each are maintained by the region’s resource agencies and allowed to expand at the detriment of local ecosystems and wildlife.
For example, The Wildlife Society recently reported that South African oryx now number several thousand and pose a threat to the Chihuahua Desert and out compete native ungulate species such as pronghorn and mule deer. The widespread practice of maintaining introduced exotic game species at the expense of native wildlife by the region’s resource agencies for the sole purpose of creating recreational hunting opportunities weakens the case against allowing the native Mexican gray wolf to exist north of I-40.
As WCC Executive Director Maggie Howell put it, ““Wildlife biologists have long recognized the importance of natural dispersal. Where one wolf roams, others follow. The continued effort to shoehorn Mexican gray wolves into the narrow stretch below Interstate 40 is unsustainable and thwarts their successful recovery.”
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