Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Eva Sargent: More Mexican gray wolves needed in the wild


02.22.2016  • 

The Mexican gray wolf (also known as “lobo”) is the most-endangered gray wolf in the world. This smaller subspecies of the gray wolf once ruled as top dog throughout the American Southwest until humans drove it to the brink of extinction. And while the lobo population hit a record high last year, this year, the news isn’t so good.

On Feb. 18, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released the 2015 count for Mexican gray wolves, which shows there are now just 97 Mexican gray wolves in the wild, a decrease from 110 lobos in 2014.

A drop in the Mexican gray wolf count is the last thing the lobos need as they continue to fight for their survival. The conservation and scientific communities already know — and have known for years — how to set lobos on the road to recovery.

While the service continues to give in to pressure from the governors of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, causing it to drag its feet on Mexican gray wolf recovery efforts, Defenders of Wildlife has already identified three significant steps that the service needs to take in order for the Mexican gray wolf to recover.

First, it needs to release more lobos from captivity as the first step in a science-based genetic rescue plan. Mexican wolves are facing a genetic crisis. All of the Mexican gray wolves in the world today are descended from only seven wolves that began the captive-breeding program. The captive population has been carefully managed to preserve its genetic diversity, but since the service failed to release enough wolves over the years, the wild population’s gene pool has become extremely limited.

This lack of genetic diversity affects lobos’ ability to raise healthy pups and adapt to changing conditions, keeping them on the brink of extinction. However, there are about 300 Mexican gray wolves in captivity in zoos and breeding centers. Many of these wolves have never bred.

By introducing new breeding pairs from captivity, the gene pool can be expanded in the wild and improve the chances for wolves to survive and thrive in the region.

Second, the service needs to complete and implement the Mexican gray wolf recovery plan. In 1982, the service drafted a so-called recovery plan, but it had no goals beyond a first step of captive breeding and wolf releases. The document did not meet any of the required elements of a bona fide recovery plan. Since then, the service has tried to develop a science-based recovery plan several times, but each time it has abandoned the effort. Now, 40 years after the lobo was listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the wolves are still without the legally required plan.

A scientifically sound recovery plan will provide key insights to keep the lobo safe into the future, such as how many wolves are needed (and in how many populations) and where these populations can find suitable habitat and prey. The agency is clearly violating its own policy that calls for recovery plans to be finalized within 2½ years of listing under the ESA. We are more than 37 years past that deadline.

Third, the service needs to establish additional lobo populations in the wild, ideally within dispersal distance of the established population in Arizona and New Mexico. Without additional populations, the wolves are at risk of extinction from disasters like wildfire or disease. A published, peer-reviewed study concluded that areas in southern Colorado and in the Grand Canyon region still contain some of the best suitable habitat for wolves. These areas have sufficient habitat and prey, low human and road densities and are within dispersal distance of the established populations in Arizona and New Mexico.

Bottom line: We need more wolves in the wild if this iconic species is going to have any chance at survival, let alone recovery. The service needs to assert its authority and recover the Mexican gray wolf now.

Eva Sargent is the senior Southwest representative of Defenders of Wildlife.


source