Saturday, March 5, 2016

It's Time to Bring Wolves Back to the Mojave Desert

Chris Clarke
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A captive Mexican wolf rests in the shade. Photo: Chris Clarke
 
One day in 1922, rancher Pauline Watson found something surprising on a trap line she'd set for coyotes near her ranch in the Mojave Desert's New York Mountains. It wasn't a coyote. At 100 pounds, it was twice as heavy as the best-fed Mojave Desert coyotes. This animal was too big, too robust, covered in fluffy whitish fur with a darker widow's peak, like an Alaskan husky.

It was the last wolf ever trapped in the Mojave Desert. Though Watson's daughter later said her mother had no desire to kill the wolf, it died on its way to a life of confinement as a planned zoo exhibit in Barstow.

For nearly a century, it was generally assumed that the wolf was a vagrant male from somewhere well to the north, a southern Rocky Mountain gray wolf. Recent genetic testing, though, indicates that it was more likely a Mexican wolf, a member of the most-endangered group of wolves in the world. If that's confirmed by further testing, it'll raise a question: why not bring the Mexican wolf back to the Mojave Desert?

The Mexican wolf, Canis lupus baileyi, is North America's smallest native wolf — and likely the oldest group of modern wolves to colonize the Americas. Until the end of the 19th century, the Mexican wolf — the original "Lobo" — ranged the pinyon-juniper forests of the Southwest, feeding primarily on the elk, deer, and bighorn sheep that thrived in the desert's so-called "sky islands."

In the first years of the 20th Century, Lobo became the Southwest's Public Enemy Number One. That's because along with those big wild deer and bighorns, along with occasional smaller mammals, Mexican wolves found themselves in a landscape suddenly overflowing with domestic livestock: cattle and (imported, non-bighorn) sheep. Starting around 1915 in the U.S., and in the 1930s in Mexico, ranching interests conducted a campaign of all-out extermination against the Mexican wolf, with traps, guns, and poisons — including the notorious broad-spectrum bait poison, sodium fluoroacetate a.k.a. Compound 1080. Wolf hunters also located active dens, shot any local adults, then dug up the pups for killing through one unpleasant means or another.

The wolf eradication campaign, which was supported by scientists at the highest levels of federal land management agencies, was very nearly successful. By 1976, when the subspecies was listed as Endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, the wolves were gone from the three southwestern states that had made up the core of their northern range: Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. The U.S. and Mexican governments conceived a plan to capture every last remaining wild Mexican wolf in the world to form the base of a captive breeding program. By 1980, they'd found five: four males and a female.

By some measures, that breeding program has been a success. By 2014, there were at least 109 Mexican wolves living in the wild in New Mexico and Arizona; during that year, officials with the Mexican wildlife agency National Commission of Natural Protected Areas (CONANP) announced a healthy litter of five pups had been born to wolves reintroduced to the Sierra Madre Occidental in late 2013.

But these wolves of the southwestern forests are by no means out of the woods. The breeding and reintroduction program has been met with intense opposition from the ranching industry and its supporters, and poaching is a serious problem in wolf territory in the United States. That poaching is likely fueled by a campaign of fear. Rumors running through rural communities of aggressive Mexican wolf-coyote hybrids, or of rampaging full-blooded Mexican wolves attacking people, driving at least one rural community to build chicken-coop-like "wolf-proof" bus shelters for local school kids. (There are no records of attacks by reintroduced Mexican wolves on humans; in fact, wolves that don't show fear of humans are ineligible for release under the program rules. And as far as biologists can tell, Mexican wolves are far more likely to kill and eat coyotes than to mate with them.)

Ironically, the livestock ranchers seek to protect are far more dangerous to people than Mexican wolves seem to be. Between 1993 and 2004, according to New Mexico's state government, 43 New Mexicans were killed by horses, nine by cattle and two by domestic sheep. Three were mauled to death by domestic dogs. Which means that Mexican wolves actually eat animals that pose real threats to humans, at least in New Mexico.

At any rate, despite the facts countering the overblown anti-wolf rhetoric, and the fact that Mexican wolves are responsible for a vanishingly small percentage of livestock losses where they've been introduced, illegal shooting of reintroduced wolves and their progeny threatens to undo the wolves' recovery.


Biologists and wildlife managers charged with taking care of a threatened, dwindling wildlife population will often hedge their bets by keeping their precious metaphorical eggs in several baskets. Mexican wolves whose recovery is currently being threatened by misunderstandings and social media-driven fear could definitely use another basket or two. They need someplace with the kind of desert conifer forest habitat they prefer, with abundant potential prey, in a place where they're likely to be left alone.

Someplace like the 1.6 million-acre Mojave National Preserve, perhaps.

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Captive Mexican wolf | Photo: Bob, some rights reserved
 
It was the killing of a Mexican wolf pack that gave rise to one of the most enduring passages in American environmental writing. Biologist Aldo Leopold, in the field in the mountains of New Mexico during the first decades of the 20th Century, didn't know the day would change him for good.
Leopold and his biologist colleagues scrambled down the slope to reach the wolves and — in Leopold's case, at least — epiphany.

The one known historic photo of the wolf Pauline Watson found on her New York Mountains trapline in 1922, showing the wolf and a hapless coyote trussed up in front of Watson and her family, is a black and white shot. The wolf is held in profile, his eyes heavy-lidded against the fear and the indignity of his situation. But it's not hard to imagine that Leopoldian green fire still shining there, finally fading only on the road to Barstow.

Aside from ranchers' traplines, the New York Mountains would have been a good place to be a Mexican wolf. Game was abundant, as was livestock back in the days before the reality of the East Mojave climate really sank in to would-be beef growers. The New Yorks were part of a chain of forested mountains reaching from the Providence Mountains southward toward Route 66, to the McCullough Mountains in the southern outskirts of Las Vegas. Some of the higher peaks held white fir groves, and most bore healthy open woodlands of pinyon and juniper. If a wolf was willing to spend a couple hours trotting across open valleys, the dense pine forests of the Hualapai Mountains and the Mogollon Rim were relatively close at hand as well.

Most of the Southwest has changed radically in the 94 years since the green fire faded from the eyes of the New York Mountains wolf. But the landscape around Watson's ranch, protected since 1994 as the Mojave National Preserve, still forms a protected core of habitat covering 1.6 million acres. Junipers, pinyon pines, and Joshua trees still cloak the local hillsides, stretching from the slopes east of the Kelso-Cima Road well into the newly protected, 21,000-acre Castle Mountains National Monument.

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Caruthers Canyon in the New York Mountains | Photo: Don M. Davis, some rights reserved
 
There is game. Hunters in the Mojave National Preserve take between 20 and 40 antlered buck mule deer each season and deer numbers aren't appreciably affected, attesting to a likely population numbering in the hundreds. Desert bighorn sheep are numerous as well. Pneumonia caught from domestic sheep has traveled from mountain range to mountain range in and near the Preserve, suggesting that able, specialized bighorn predators such as Mexican wolves might do the overall population a service by removing the sickest sheep a little earlier.

And though there's more pavement and faster vehicles in the area than there were in 1922, a wolf in 2016 might still walk from the Providence Mountains northward, largely among conifers and concealing brush, about 100 miles into the sheep-filled mountains just south of Las Vegas and cross just two lanes of blacktop along the way.

Opposition from ranching doesn't need to be an obstacle to bringing Mexican wolves back into the Preserve, assuming a little negotiation among stakeholders. Ranching was prevalent in the area until late in the 20th Century, but establishment of the Preserve set in motion a wave of retirements of grazing allotments. Just one family still ranches in the Preserve, which could make it easier to arrange compensation for any livestock lost to hypothetically reintroduced Mexican wolves.

In fact, given the popularity of wolves among most Californians these days, one could probably crowdfund a generous compensation program for every calf thought to have been lost to a wolf.
One possible source of strident opposition to a Mexican wolf reintroduction into the Mojave National Preserve would come from hunters, specifically varmint hunters. Hunting is allowed in the Mojave Preserve — one of the compromises made in the 1994 California Desert Protection Act was to designate the what had been called the East Mojave National Scenic Area as Mojave National Preserve instead of Mojave National Park, primarily to allow hunting to continue as it had when the Bureau of Land Management ran the place.

In the Preserve now, hunters with valid licenses can kill as many coyotes as they want at any time of year. Given the prevalence of protected wolves being shot by gunmen who claim they though the animal was a coyote, it's likely a wolf reintroduction program would need changes in the coyote hunting rules to be successful in the Preserve. It's even possible that wolves' mere presence will mean fewer coyotes in the Preserve. Confrontations between coyotes and wolves usually end with the coyotes being either killed or run out of town.

And that introduces a whole lot of topics for discussion. What would the ecological effects be of adding a big predator to the Preserve that's been absent for close to a century, and which might have been rare before that?
  • Would bringing in wolves reduce the number of mule deer, and if so, what effect would that have on the desert vegetation the Park Service is obliged to protect?
  • Would reducing the number of coyotes reduce deaths among the desert tortoises coyotes often eat, or would wolves increase tortoise deaths by competing with coyotes for other food sources?
  • What of the impact on desert bighorn? Would wolves remove the sickest sheep and benefit the species, or would they contribute to the bighorn's overall decline?
  • Are there enough natural sources of water in the Preserve's mountains for wolves to survive and thrive? Will there be enough water if the climate changes by a few degrees, or if someone pumps the groundwater out of the nearby aquifers?
There is, of course, a way to assess and discuss these and other questions. Proposing a reintroduction of an Endangered species onto land managed by the National Park Service would mean a detailed Environmental Impact Statement prepared as required by the National Environmental Policy Act, a lengthy and complex process that gives both expert biologists and members of the public with strong opinions a chance to weigh in and have their concerns addressed.

Such a process would cover likely effects on local wildlife of a wolf reintroduction. It would also give hunters, ranchers, and those afraid of wolves a chance to raise objections to the idea, should they desire.

And for that process to even start, we'd need two large federal agencies to decide it was worth their time. Both the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — charged with protecting and managing Endangered species — would need to find the interest and resources necessary to pursue what would likely be a decade-long process under the most optimistic of conditons before a single set of wolf paws would touch the soil of the Preserve.

That process would be interesting, to say the least. It might enrage as many people as it inspires. It would, in all likelihood, be far easier, less controversial, and less expensive for agencies just to avoid bringing the possibility up at all.

In his essay about the wolf and its green fire, Aldo Leopold had something to say about playing it safe like that:

It is, at the very least, worth a thought.

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Mexican wolf pup howls | Photo: USFWS