Let science, not politics, help the wolf July 27, 2005 12:14 PM
Let science, not politics, help the wolf
Michael J. Robinson
Jul. 25, 2005 12:00 AM
The Mexican gray wolf reintroduction program is at a critical
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to restrict further
releases of wolves into the wild and plans to trap and shoot more of
them. Conservationists have been criticized for only questioning
management of the program and have been urged to emphasize the
progress that has been made.
Indeed, the reintroduction has provided hope for a new relationship
between humanity and nature. But for our children and grandchildren
to realize that hope we must now examine without illusions what has
been achieved, what has not, and where we need to go from here.
When the reintroduction began in 1998, the only remaining Mexican
wolves had been born in captivity. The Fish and Wildlife Service and
its predecessor agency had poisoned and trapped their kind in the
United States and in Mexico from 1915 through the early 1970s. After
1973, when the Endangered Species Act became law, the last five wild
lobos were captured alive in Mexico for an emergency captive-
After almost 20 years of zoos and non-profit organizations breeding
the wolves (at times actively discouraged by the Fish and Wildlife
Service) and as a result of a 1990 lawsuit by a broad coalition of
conservationists, the federal agency finally authorized
reintroduction, but burdened by red tape.
Unlike its management for other endangered species, the Fish and
Wildlife Service pledged to confine wolves to a politically, and not
biologically, constricted recovery area. And unlike in the
reintroduction of wolves to Idaho and Wyoming, ranchers in the
Southwest are allowed to leave out dead cattle and horses that die
of non-wolf causes with the knowledge that any wolf that begins
killing livestock after scavenging on such carcasses will be removed.
Given such constraints, the wolves themselves have proven resilient
survivors. Doubts about whether captive-born animals could learn to
hunt, raise pups and survive myriad natural challenges were
dispelled in the June 2001 three-year review of the program
commissioned by the Fish and Wildlife Service and conducted by
independent biologists, led by Paul C. Paquet of the University of
The Paquet report made clear that the wolves' adaptation to the wild
was a success but warned that the population would not reach goals
unless more wolves were allowed to live out their lives in the wild.
To that end, the scientists recommended changing the rules to allow
wolves to wander outside arbitrary boundaries, and requiring
ranchers to take some responsibility for removing livestock
carcasses or making them inedible to wolves (for example, by
The Fish and Wildlife Service has not acted on these
recommendations, even though in December 2004 agency biologists
identified wolves wandering outside the recovery area as the single
greatest reason for trapping the animals, and documented that the
vast majority of wolves known to have scavenged on dead livestock
were subsequently involved in depredations, the second biggest
reason for removing them.
So how is Mexican wolf reintroduction going? The reintroduction plan
projected 68 wolves by the end of the seventh year of
reintroduction. By Fish and Wildlife Service's count, there were 44
observed by the end of 2004 (down from 55 by the end of 2003).
Fifteen breeding pairs were projected for this year, but only seven
are thought to have given birth during the April/May whelping period.
Three wolves have been shot. Nine have died inadvertently as a
result of capture operations. Many wolf packs that were captured and
re-released in unfamiliar territories have split, leading to lone
wolves wandering widely and getting picked off by poachers. This
phenomenon led the Paquet report to emphasize the importance of not
disrupting wolves' social bonds through unnecessary captures.
What the wolves need most is to be left alone, allowing them to roam
freely unless they are causing problems, and to protect them from
the temptations of livestock carcasses.
Southwestern ecosystems can benefit broadly from the creature that
over millions of years has helped hone the alertness of the deer,
provided carrion for bears and eagles, and even increased fox
populations by means of controlling coyotes, which prey on foxes.
Ultimately, our society can learn much from wolves: Communication
and cooperation are the keys to survival.
Michael J. Robinson represents the Center for Biological Diversity,
and is author of the upcoming book Predatory Bureaucracy: The
Extermination of Wolves and the Transformation of the West.
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