But Colorado can help save them if we move beyond the politics that block successful recovery.
Forty years ago, lobos were likely extinct in the United States and extremely rare in Mexico. They were saved from extinction by seven survivors, which were placed in a captive breeding program. Today, the wild population numbers 97 in the U.S. and fewer than 25 in Mexico, all of which suffer from a significant lack of genetic diversity. As a result, the wild lobo is losing ground again, backsliding toward oblivion due to political pressure.
In order to survive, thrive and ultimately recover, the lobo needs three things.
First, there is an urgent need for more wolf releases from captivity. Because all of the lobos alive today are descendants of the original seven captive wolves, preserving this limited genetic heritage requires careful management. But ever since the lobo reintroduction program began in the late 1990s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has never released enough wolves from captivity. During the entire Obama administration, only four new wolves have been released. Of these, three are dead and one has been returned to captivity.
The lack of wolf releases over the years has impeded a steady increase in the lobos' numbers and triggered a continual loss of genetic diversity in the wild lobo population, resulting in smaller litters, lower pup survival and a population that is less able to adapt over time to changing conditions — a recipe for extinction.
The best available science tells us that in order to beat extinction, lobos need at least two additional core populations within dispersal distance of the current population in Arizona and New Mexico. Peer-reviewed, published scientific research indicates that the best remaining habitats for these new populations are in the Grand Canyon ecoregion, and in the southern Rocky Mountains of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado.
Our second point: Lobos need friendlier politicians in Colorado who are willing to govern by science, not myth. Gov. John Hickenlooper and the Parks and Wildlife Commission have actively opposed Mexican gray wolf releases in Colorado, a position that ignores the important role the wolves would play in maintaining healthy ecosystems. It also ignores the findings in Arizona that wolves there did not adversely impact elk populations or ruin the ranching industry.
Finally, Mexican gray wolves need a science-based recovery plan to get them out of the jam they are in and headed toward recovery. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service needs to go where the science leads it and stand firm against the relentless political pressure from state politicians and wildlife commissioners who would prefer a plan that keeps Mexican gray wolves out of needed recovery habitats, leaving the species on the brink of extinction.
Wolves are a critical component of healthy landscapes and wildlife populations, which is exactly what Coloradans want. What we don't need is continued catering to outdated anti-predator interests at the expense of endangered lobos and a healthy environment. Our politicians should recognize the will of the majority, and their decisions should be guided on the best available science.
Jonathan Proctor is the Rockies and Plains program director for Defenders of Wildlife. Heidi McIntosh is managing attorney of the Rocky Mountain regional office of Earthjustice. Both live in Denver.