Recovery Roadblocks

Is the federal agency in charge of saving the Mexican wolf keeping it from thriving?

photo of a wolfphoto Lwp Kommunikáció / Glenn NagelDespite two decades of captive breeding and rewilding efforts, the Mexican gray’s numbers in the wild haven’t grown enough to be naturally self-sustaining. The wolf still remains one of the rarest and most endangered gray wolf subspecies in the world.

In October 2016 – just a few weeks before the Election Day upheaval in the United States, when Trump’s border wall rhetoric was at its peak – Mexican biologists released several radio-collared wolves into a forest about 90 miles south of the US border, in Chihuahua state. The release was part of an ongoing transnational Mexican gray wolf recovery effort. It’s not clear what happened to the rest of the wolves – whether they stuck close together, whether they all dispersed as this wide-ranging species often tends to do, or whether some died – but what we do know is that at least one of them, a 10-month-old female tagged F1530 by wolf managers and named Sonora by wolf advocates, decided to wander off north into the rugged borderlands terrain, most likely in search of a mate.

The last time her radio collar worked, on Valentine’s Day 2017, it placed her 21 miles south of the border. About a month later, on March 19, 2017, an Arizona Game and Fish Department wildlife manager spotted her on a private ranch near the Chiricahua Mountains in southeastern Arizona. A few days later, she was seen on the same ranch again. Ranch employees tried to scare her away, but Sonora wasn’t easy to shoo off. Born in a breeding facility in Cananea, Mexico, she had probably lost some of the instinctive fear of humans that wild things rightfully have. And that was her undoing.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) deemed her refusal to retreat “minor problem behavior.” Meanwhile, local ranchers reported several livestock deaths in the area, and investigations revealed that at least one of those animals had been killed by a wolf. Since there had been no other wolves sighted in the area at the time, all fingers pointed to Sonora. So on March 26, 2017, six days after she was first spotted in the US, Sonora’s all-too-brief life as a free wolf was cut short. She was captured by the Interagency Field Team in charge of Mexican wolf management and relocated to Sevilleta Wolf Management Facility in New Mexico. In November 2017, she was relocated to the Sedgwick County Zoo in Kansas, a captive breeding facility for Mexican wolves. In all likelihood, she will never be set free again.

“We were decisive in our management actions because this wolf was young, alone, genetically important, and not affiliated with another pack,” Benjamin Tuggle, Southwest regional director for FWS, said in a statement after the capture. What Tuggle didn’t mention was that the ranchers on whose property Sonora had been sighted wouldn’t let officials on his land to catch her unless the FWS agreed not to release her again.

This year, Sonora was paired for breeding at the zoo, and the FWS hopes she will produce pups to contribute to recovery efforts for the endangered wolf subspecies.

Other wolf advocates agree that Sonora’s genetics are valuable, but they believe she should be released back into the wild so that she can continue to help the struggling wild Mexican gray wolf population recover. “It’s a tragedy that she was first of all removed from the wild,” says Bryan Bird, Southwest program director for Defenders of Wildlife. It would have been better if she could have reproduced in the wild, he says, “because wolves that are born and raised in the wild know how to be [real] wolves.”

Sonora’s cross-border journey and eventual capture underscore the many challenges facing the Mexican gray wolf, including its artificially restricted range, genetic bottlenecks, and now, the Trump administration’s border wall.

This smallest of gray wolves was listed under the Endangered Species Act more than 40 years ago. But despite its protected status and two decades of captive breeding and rewilding efforts, its numbers in the wild haven’t grown enough to be naturally self-sustaning. The Mexican gray still remains one of the rarest and most endangered gray wolf subspecies in the world. But many wildlife conservationists argue that this is only the case because the federal agency charged with its recovery is not allowing it to thrive.

The Mexican gray wolf (Canis lupus baileyi), called “el lobo” in Spanish, is the southernmost-occurring and most genetically distinct subspecies of gray wolf in North America. Identifiable by its small size and dappled gray, black, and rust coat, this wolf once used to roam the mountain woodlands of the American Southwest from Texas to New Mexico to Arizona, even to the southern ends of Colorado and Utah, and across the border into northern and central Mexico. But at the turn of the century, as cattle ranches proliferated in the region and populations of native prey, such as deer and elk, began to fall, causing many wolves to prey on livestock, these canids began to be seen as a nuisance. This led to aggressive predator control programs by the US government.

Lobo 1676

It is rare to get a look at a Mexican wolf in the wild. But wolf advocate Jean Ossorio says it’s possible “with a little patience, plenty of time, and a bit of luck.” The retired schoolteacher has had more than 50 sightings over the last two decades.

photo of a woman wearing a helmet, carrying a sedated wolf

Since the spring of 1998, when the first wolves were released back into their native habitat and allowed to roam, hunt, and raise pups in a mountainous area that straddles the Arizona-New Mexico state line, Ossorio has spent 477 nights camping in the recovery area.


From the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, the federal government paid hunters to trap, poison, and kill the animals across the Southwest, and by the 1940s there were no breeding Mexican wolves left in the US. Still, some wolves continued to wander in from across the border, which prompted the FWS to send trappers down to Mexico to help the country get rid of the wolves as well. By 1976, when the Mexican gray was finally listed as an endangered species, it was nearly extinct in the wild.

Following the ESA listing, the very agency that had been leading the war against the Mexican gray was tasked with helping the species recover. So the FWS sent one of its trappers, Roy T. McBride, across the border again with a new mission – to capture some Mexican grays alive. Given that there were barely any wolves left alive in the wild at the time, “it took McBride four years [from 1977 to 1980] to capture six wolves,” says Michael Robinson, conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, and author of Predatory Bureaucracy: The Extermination of Wolves and the Transformation of the West. One of those six died during capture, and the remaining five, one female and four males, were transferred to a breeding center in the US.

In 1982, US and Mexican wildlife agencies adopted the Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan, which called for maintaining a captive breeding program in both countries and re-establishing a population of at least 100 Mexican wolves within a small portion of their historic range in the US. Biologists successfully bred three of the five wolves captured alive in Mexico, known as the McBride pack, as well as two other pairs found in zoos, known as the Aragon and Ghost Ranch packs. Over the years the captive population of the wolves steadily increased. By 1997, the population had grown to 148 wolves, but none of these animals had been released into the wild, due in large part to controversy surrounding reintroduction: Most local ranchers and hunters were, of course, fiercely opposed to the idea of allowing wolves back into the landscape because they prey on elk, deer, and other game that hunters value, and sometimes kill livestock as well.

Eventually, in 1998, in response to litigation against the FWS brought by seven environmental groups for its failure to implement provisions of the Endangered Species Act, the agency reintroduced the first batch of 11 captive-born wolves into the Apache National Forest in Arizona, within a “Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area” – a 6,850-square-mile stretch of primarily national forest land spanning eastern Arizona and western New Mexico. Across the border in Mexico, where surveys failed to detect any wild wolves after 1980, reintroductions began only seven years ago, in 2011.

Today there are 114 Mexican wolves in the wild in the US, comprising 22 packs of about 2 to 8 individuals each, in New Mexico and Arizona. An additional 37 or so live in the Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains of Mexico, and approximately 300 more live in captivity at more than 50 breeding facilities in the two countries.

All of the 450 or so Mexican wolves alive today trace their lineage to the seven wolves who were first bred in captivity back in the 1980s. What’s more, the FWS estimates that more than half the genetic diversity of the original seven population founders has been lost through inbreeding. Robinson says the wolves in the wild are so genetically similar that they could all be siblings, which means “extinction is a looming possibility” for the wild population. The US wild population already suffers from high mortality due to its compromised genetics, in addition to killings by poachers and lawful control measures, which include removal or killing of so-called problem wolves that prey on livestock. For example, between 1998, when the first reintroductions took place, and 2016, feds shot at least 14 Mexican wolves and accidentally killed 21 while trying to capture them.

photo of a collared wolf in grasslandphoto USFWSAll the Mexican grays alive today trace their lineage to the seven wolves who were first bred in captivity in the 1980s.

The FWS estimates that, between 1998 and 2013, the “initial release success rate” for the wolf was about 21 percent. Which means, for every 100 wolves released, only 21 of them survived, bred, and produced pups.

Wolf advocates hope that the US and Mexican populations – which are currently heavily managed as “non-essential, experimental” populations – will one day connect, expand their gene pool, and reassume their biological role in the Southwest ecosystem.

“[These] wolves need to be able to go back and forth, and mate with each other and spread genes from one population to another in the form of pups that would be born,” Robinson says.

Questions about just how this back and forth mingling of genes will be achieved, exactly how many free-ranging Mexican wolves there should be in the wild, and how far they should be allowed to roam, have been an ongoing source of conflict (and litigation) between wildlife conservation groups and the FWS. That conflict came to a head last November when the FWS released its revised recovery plan for the Mexican wolf.

The original Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan, adopted in 1982, envisioned maintaining a captive breeding program and re-establishing “a viable, self-sustaining population of at least 100 Mexican wolves” within a small, 5,000-square-mile area of the Southwest, as more of an experiment than a full-fledged rewilding effort. At that time, the wolves were so close to extinction that agency biologists were uncertain if they could ever be rewilded successfully. The plan, therefore, didn’t include a goal to eventually remove the Mexican wolf from the endangered species list. The idea was that the recovery plan would be revised in the years ahead based on the outcomes of the initial releases.

Robinson says the FWS formed recovery plan revision teams three times in the past, but each time those teams came close to forming a new recovery plan, the agency cancelled them, citing, among other things, lack of resources, too-slow progress of a committee, and the need to obtain more data. “My guess is that the teams were coming up with population numbers for the Mexican wolves that were higher than what they wanted to fight for against the opposition of the livestock industry and state game agencies,” he says.

graphical map depicting the ranges of the wolf populationssource: FWSHemmed In: If a wolf ventures outside the Blue Range Recovery Area into the Experimental Population Area, south of I-40 and north of I-10, it is captured and re-released within the recovery area or put into the captive population.

Indeed, the last team of independent biologists the agency had hired to draft an updated recovery plan in 2012 had recommended expanding the wolf population in the US to three connected zones with 250 wolves each – a total of 750 animals. The scientists warned that unless this was done, the current, isolated wolf populations would be vulnerable to dying out.

“The other two populations, which don’t exist at this time, would be the Grand Canyon population, which would extend north of the Grand Canyon into southern Utah, and the Southern Rocky Mountains population, which would be in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico,” explains Bird of Defenders of Wildlife. Adding those two populations would require allowing the wolves to move north of Interstate 40. There’s another reason why this is necessary, Bird adds. “Climate change is going to be a very big concern for the recovery because habitat that might have been suitable for the Mexican gray wolf earlier may not be [so in the future],” Bird says. “It’s very likely the best habitat for this animal may shift to the north significantly.”

However, the FWS halted meetings with this team midway through the process and convened another group of state officials and their chosen biologists that came up with the final recovery plan released last November.

The new recovery plan ignores the 2012 team’s recommendations and calls for just one Arizona-New Mexico population of 320 wolves. It envisions the agency will delist Mexican wolves by around 2043, provided the US population holds steady at around 320 individuals and Mexico’s at 200 individuals for at least eight years. The plan provides for the release of only 70 wolves from captivity over this 25-year time period. It also maintains the northern boundary of I-40, thus restricting the range of the US wolf population to southern and central Arizona and New Mexico, allows problem wolves to be killed by federal agents and private landowners, and doesn’t see the need to connect the US and Mexico populations.

The agency says the plan would enable recovery of the Mexican wolf “in a manner that minimizes effects on local communities, livestock production, native ungulate herds, and recreation.” In other words, it has tried to strike a seemingly impossible balance between meeting the needs of the wolf and appeasing the people who oppose its reintroduction.

Conservationists, who had seen this coming for a while, called it a blueprint for disaster. They said the new recovery plan was so flawed that it would lead to greater inbreeding and isolation of the two wolf populations and eventually lead to the failure of the entire rewilding effort. They accused the FWS of setting aside sound science and bowing to the pressures of livestock and hunting groups that have all along tried to block the development of a robust recovery plan. “The program has been completely captured by politics, and the science has fallen to the wayside,” Bird says.

Ranching groups, too, are unhappy with the plan, but for exactly opposite reasons. They feel the population cap is too high and will lead to more wolves attacking their cattle.

“The members within the wolf recovery area continue to have problems with depredations,” says Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattlegrowers’ Association. “Now in terms of our entire membership, it’s a relatively small group, but those depredations are critical to the management of their operations and their ability to remain economically viable.”

Environmentalists point out that though the wolves do occasionally prey on cattle, they mainly eat elk, which make up about 80 percent of their diet, in addition to deer, rabbits, and other small animals. Studies show that cattle make up anywhere between 4 to 17 percent of their diet, and that includes cattle that might have died from other causes.

On January 30, 2018, several environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, and WildEarth Guardians filed two separate lawsuits against the FWS, claiming that the new recovery plan violated the mandates of the Endangered Species Act and, if implemented, would not lead to recovery of the Mexican wolf.

The legal challenge to the new recovery plan, which is expected to be heard in the next few months, received an unexpected boost in early April when a federal judge ordered the FWS to revise its plan for the management of Mexican wolves, saying that the agency’s new management rule imposed roadblocks to the broader effort, the overall recovery of the rare species.

This gets a little confusing, so let’s back up a bit: The Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan is the big picture – it offers a guideline or roadmap for how the animal can be restored to its natural habitat. The management rule, a subset of this larger recovery plan, is a specific set of legal regulations for managing the reintroduced wolf populations. This includes decisions on how many wolves will be released annually, under what circumstances they would be removed from the wild, etc. It also spells out the rights of local residents with respect to their safety and protection of livestock and other property.

In April, a federal judge ruled the FWS’s Mexican wolf management rule was “arbitrary and capricious”

In 2015, the FWS revised its rule for managing Mexican wolves for the first time since the initial reintroductions in 1998. Under normal circumstances, the recovery plan for an endangered species – which lays out the goals – is updated first and then the management rule – which specifies logistics and many details of implementation – is revised according to the new goals, but “for some strange reason, USFWS in this case created the 10(j) management rule first and then the recovery plan,” Bird says. In other words, the FWS seems to have first crafted what it thought was a politically acceptable way to manage the animals, then matched the recovery goals to fit what had been deemed acceptable.

The new management rule raised the population cap from 100 to 325 and expanded the wolf’s permitted range to all of Arizona and New Mexico south of Interstate 40 (exactly the same as what the new recovery plan recommends). It also allowed more killing of Mexican wolves by federal agents and private landowners over livestock conflicts within the recovery zone and did not take into account the potential loss of genetically valuable wolves (like Sonora).

The Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife had filed a suit against the new rule the day it was finalized in 2015, for more or less the same reason that they would later sue the FWS over the 2017 wolf recovery plan – it put the endangered species in further peril.

The US District Court judge, Jennifer Zipps, who heard the case about the new management rule, agreed with the plaintiffs that it failed to further the long-term recovery of the Mexican wolf. She particularly faulted the FWS for disregarding the advice of expert scientists who warned that the new management rule would hinder the Mexican wolf’s recovery, and said that the agency’s refusal to consider the only wild population of Mexican wolves in the US as “essential” to the recovery of the species was “arbitrary and capricious.”

“In carrying out its conservation mandate, FWS must consider the long term viability of the species. To this end, the agency may not ignore recovery needs and focus entirely on survival. Rather, recovery envisions self-sustaining populations that no longer require the protections or support of the [Endangered Species] Act,” Zipps wrote in her ruling. “The Court is not unsympathetic to the challenges the agency faces in its efforts to recover such a socially controversial species,” she went on to add. “However, any effort to make the recovery effort more effective must be accomplished without undermining the scientific integrity of the agency’s findings.”

The court decision on the management rule thus bolsters the conservation groups’ case against the wolf recovery plan. That the groups have also managed to move the case against the new recovery plan (which is yet to be heard) to Judge Zipps’s courtroom gives them an additional advantage. “[Since] a lot of the issues she addressed in the management rule are almost identical to the issues in the recovery plan challenge, we should have a similar result; that is, the recovery plan gets invalidated, or at least the FWS is sent back to do one that uses the best available science,” Bird says.

The FWS declined to comment on the ruling since it’s still in litigation.

The ruling does not, however, mandate immediate wolf management adjustments, so the program will continue as is while the FWS works on its response to the court order, which could include an appeal. This means that the limits on population numbers and the Mexican gray’s movement north of the I-40 still hold.

The latter is an immediate problem because wolves are already trying to disperse north of I-40, Bird says. “There have been a couple that have gone north of I-40. One came back on its own volition, and one was picked up by FWS and brought back. We’re obviously not going to reach [the population cap] in the next year or two, so that’s not quite as much of a problem right now.”

photo of a wolf pup being handled by a humanphoto USFWSThe FWS currently reintroduces wolves into the wild via cross-fostering – adding a captive-born pup into a wild wolf den. Wolf advocates say this is an imperfect solution since mother wolves can reject the pups, and it takes at least two years for pups to reach breeding age. They say the wolves’ chances of survival increase if released as family groups.

However, there is another immediate threat to the Mexican gray’s survival – Trump’s border wall. The proposed solid, impermeable wall that would run nearly 2,000 miles along US-Mexico border, from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, would cut across habitats and migration pathways of at least 93 endangered and threatened species, including jaguars, ocelots, pygmy owls, and, of course, Mexican gray wolves. It would not only have dire consequences for many of these animals, but would also undo years of environmental cooperation between the two countries to protect wildlife in these borderlands ecosystems.

For the genetically compromised Mexican wolf, a wall would block the free exchange of genes between the only two existing wild populations, further compromising a recovery that is already threatened on so many other fronts.

Oddly enough, while the new recovery plan relies on the wolf population in Mexico for nearly 40 percent of the animals it aims to recover, it also states that the wolves wouldn’t travel between the US and Mexico in numbers large enough “to provide for adequate gene flow between populations to alleviate genetic threats,” implying that the wall isn’t much of a concern. But wildlife biologists say that assumption ignores just how wide-ranging these animals are. Sonora, they point out, isn’t the only wolf to have made the cross-border journey. Last year, another wolf released in Mexico traveled almost all the way up to Las Cruces, New Mexico, some 50 miles past the border before turning back and crossing into Mexico again.

“A couple more have reached the border [on the Mexico side]; they didn’t cross over, but came very close,” says Carlos A. Lopez Gonzalez, a biologist specializing in large carnivores who has been coordinating the Mexican field recovery effort in the wild. “That’s one of the things that the wall is basically going to have an impact on, because it’s clear that there’s a connectivity.”

The wolf that made the cross-border round trip “crossed I-10 twice, not an easy highway to negotiate,” Gonzalez says. “It shows that these wolves can live in human-dominated landscapes without being seen.”

Under the 2005 Real ID Act, the Department of Homeland Security can waive various environmental laws that might slow down or halt construction of border walls in a sensitive area. A lawsuit challenging the waiver, filed by environmental groups and the state of California, was dismissed in February. Robinson, whose organization was one of the litigants, says the Center for Biological Diversity will appeal the decision. “There’s a real tie between the border wall and the challenged Mexican wolf recovery plan,” Robinson says. “In fact, even before the wall is built, the FWS is basically acting like a wall, blocking wolves from crossing by capturing the ones that are crossing over.”

Most environmentalists agree that the majority of the challenges facing the Mexican wolf are more social than anything else. As Bird says: “We have to get people that live in the places where wolves are recovering and expanding their population to be able to live peacefully with the animals.”

To that end, organizations like the Defenders of Wildlife have been working to smooth relationships across the wolf-livestock divide. One of Bird’s colleagues sits on the Mexican Wolf / Livestock Coexistence Council, a coalition of ranchers, conservationists, tribes, and counties that helps ranchers live alongside wolves.

The council doesn’t just compensate ranchers for livestock killed by wolves, it also pays ranchers if there are any wolves present on their ranch, if wolf pups on the land survive, and if the ranchers take measures to reduce livestock-wolf conflict, including having more ranch staff patrol the land.

The work the council has done is pretty good so far, but it isn’t always easy given the differing interests of all the stakeholders, says council chairperson Sisto Hernandez, a member of the White Mountain Apache Tribe in Arizona. “There’s a lot of strong feelings both ways,” he says. “Not unlike national politics right now, extremes from both ends make it difficult for those of us who are a little more moderate to do things.”

Sisto says all ranchers and hunters and even tribes want is to be able to continue to hunt and raise livestock and live the way that they have for so long. “We’d like to work toward finding out what it would be that would allow us to be able to live our lives and not have to give that stuff up.”

For conservationists like Bird though, the ultimate goal of all of this work is restoring the Mexican wolf to the Southwest landscape. “There’s a lot of discussion about what the goals of a recovery plan should be,” he says. “Should it be numerical? Should it be genetic? Should it be distribution? But Defenders strongly believes it’s ultimately whether or not the wolf population is fulfilling its ecological role.” And he is optimistic that there will be a time in the future when all of the challenges that the Mexican gray faces will be overcome.

“I have hope because the wolves are really resilient animals,” he says. “They are good at doing what they do, survival and dispersal, if we just get out of the way.”

Additional reporting by Maureen Nandini Mitra.

An earlier version of this story inaccurately stated that Mexican Wolf / Livestock Coexistence Council pays all ranchers living within the Mexican wolf recovery area territory a fee for being exposed to risk there. The council pays ranchers only if there are wolves present on their ranch.

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