Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Will the wolf survive? (Editorial)

Posted: Saturday, April 23, 2016 
Forty years after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service first listed the Mexican gray wolf under the Endangered Species Act, this iconic creature remains in danger of extinction. Its recovery should be much further along. Instead, the wolf population in the wild dropped from 110 last year to just 97 in 2016.
These declining numbers make the actual anniversary, April 28, less a moment to celebrate than one to rededicate efforts to save the lobo. The federal government must do more to stop states such as New Mexico and Arizona from blocking reintroduction of wolves in the wild. Shamefully, just as the 40th anniversary was approaching, the state of New Mexico announced it would sue the federal government over its bold decision to release captive wolves despite state refusal to permit the reintroductions. The feds were correct in deciding to ignore an overly political state process and should prevail in court.
The service, despite New Mexico’s roadblocks, had announced it would release a pack of wolves this year and also was considering placing captive-born pups in wild packs. These moves are necessary to improve genetic diversity for wolves, which increases their survival chances. New Mexico is claiming such releases, without permits, would violate state law. We have argued before, and do again, that state officials are wrong to block reintroduction. Without a broader gene pool, extinction could be just around the corner. The goal of preserving the wolf must remain clearly in sight.

Otherwise, decades of work by so many to save the wolves could be lost. Before the campaign of extermination, wolves were plentiful in the American Southwest. But by 1976, Mexican gray wolves had disappeared from the United States and roamed only in Mexico. A captive breeding program started in the 1980s, and wolves were reintroduced into the wild starting in 1998. A handful of wolves bred in captivity became the ancestors of all Mexican gray wolves alive today. Extinction has been avoided — for now.

Poor decision-making over the years means the wolf still is not secure. Yet a vibrant wolf population could help bring back balance to ecosystems in the Southwest, biologists believe. Because wolves go after the old, sick and young, animal populations are strengthened and numbers kept at a healthy level. That prevents overgrazing and destruction of habitat for other creatures. Balance, in other words, is restored.

The release of captive lobos — who have genes that are missing in the wild population — would improve genetic diversity and give the wolves a fighting chance at survival. To make the releases happen, Fish and Wildlife officials must fight state pressure; that’s why the decision to move ahead with New Mexico releases despite the state’s refusal to issue permits is noteworthy. More captive releases are essential (there have been only four new Mexican gray wolves let go since 2009). Sadly, three of the releases are dead and the fourth is back in captivity.

But releases are just a beginning. Wolves need a wider recovery area, free of artificial limits placed upon them. Rules limiting the wild Mexican gray wolf population to 325 animals are too low — Fish and Wildlife’s own scientists have found that at least 750 wolves and a wider geographic range are necessary to move the species toward recovery. We need science, not emotion, to lead.

By ignoring politics, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can make decisions that will improve the survival odds of the Mexican gray wolf. Release more wolves from captivity. Expand the wolves’ range. Use the support of citizens — a majority of voters in New Mexico and Arizona polled want to see two new lobo populations established — to make these goals reality.

While there needs to be protection for ranchers worried about cattle losses, such concerns can’t be allowed to hound the wolf into extinction. State interests more concerned about big cattle than the lobo must no longer dominate the discussion, else the wolf will fade to black. The lobo is an icon of the West. Listing the species in 1976 saved it, but that reprieve will prove temporary without a more vigorous recovery plan. On this 40th anniversary of the wolf’s stay of execution, the country needs to rededicate itself to preserving this essential species.