Their crime was living beyond their designated recovery area consisting of the Gila and Apache national forests in southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona, respectively.
The Mexican wolf is the only endangered species in the country that is required by regulation to stay within politically-derived boundaries, a line circumscribing two national forests as well as the Fort Apache Indian Reservation in Arizona and Ted Turner's Ladder Ranch east of the Gila. Elsewhere, even on public lands, they must be removed.
After 13 years of scientists criticizing this arbitrary regulation as unnecessarily hindering recovery, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is now proposing to allow wolves to live in an area around 15 times as large as presently permitted.
The Service also proposes to allow wolves to be released from captive-breeding facilities into the Gila and elsewhere where releases of captive-bred wolves are forbidden today.
That brings us back to the El Malpais wolves. This summer, they were released into the Gila (since they were not captive-bred but rather had been in the wild before), denominated the "Lava Pack," and quickly split apart. That they went their separate ways is good news: because they're first cousins; they'd be better off with someone else.
And that highlights one the biggest challenges facing the 83 Mexican wolves currently living in the wild in New Mexico and Arizona — they are inbred, a consequence of high mortality and few releases. Unrelated wolves are few and far between. Inbreeding is correlated with smaller litters of pups and fewer pups maturing to adulthood.
Under current regulations, wolves from captivity, with critical new DNA, can only be released in 16 percent of the recovery area — entirely within Arizona where wolves have already established territories which they'll defend from other wolves.
The proposal to allow new releases on millions of acres of the Gila and other remote habitats teeming with deer and elk would help save the Mexican wolf from inbreeding.
But other provisions in the federal proposal would increase mortality despite scientists urging that already-high rates of wolf killing and live-removal to captivity be decreased.
The proposal includes provisions to expand existing loopholes and create new ones to allow more killing of wolves by the federal and state governments and by citizens. For example, wolves would be removed upon determination by state game agencies that they are having an "unacceptable impact" on elk or deer.
Wolves would not be allowed to establish territories north of Interstate 40 in important recovery-habitat in the Grand Canyon and southern Rocky Mountains.
Wolves from Mexico, where a reintroduction program that began in 2011 has finally resulted in pups born this spring, would lose their protections as fully endangered and be designated as "experimental, non-essential" if they cross into the United States.
Fortunately, one of the alternatives in a draft environmental impact statement would include the two science-based reforms but exclude most provisions to increase wolf trapping and killing. That's a good start, but doesn't address other longstanding problems.
Alternative 3 in the draft EIS with these changes would help these struggling wolves recover:
— Allow wolves to establish territories north of I-40 and in Texas.
— Keep wolves from Mexico and their progeny in the U.S. fully protected.
— Require livestock owners to take responsibility for removing or rendering inedible (through lime for example) the carcasses of non-wolf-killed stock, in order to help prevent depredations.
— Re-designate the wolves as "experimental essential," which would afford them greater legal protection.
Wolves are beautiful, intelligent, social animals that are vital to the balance of nature. Yet, after years of half-hearted recovery efforts, the Mexican gray wolf, uniquely adapted to our small corner of the world, remains on the brink of extinction.
With the right modifications, Alternative 3 offers an important opportunity for us to begin the process of finally ending decades of mistreating Mexican wolves.
With rampant inbreeding and only five breeding pairs currently living in the wild, it's essential that we act now, not later.
The Fish and Wildlife Service will hold a public hearing on its proposed rule-change and alternatives at the Civic Center, 400 West Fourth Street, Truth or Consequences, from 6 to 9 p.m. Wednesday. To sign up to speak, you must fill out and turn in a form by 5:45 p.m.