ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Mexican wolf reigns as the most endangered of its species in the world.
Efforts to conserve the subspecies date back a little more than 100 years, with their gestation beginning in New Mexico.
The Maxwell Museum of Anthropology is examining this most controversial of animals with the exhibition “Intertwined: The Mexican Wolf, the People and the Land,” running through July.
Europeans have long mythologized the wolf through fairy tales. Think “Little Red Riding Hood” and “The Three Little Pigs.” Aesop’s Fables told wolf stories dating to 600 B.C. Then there’s the Russian folk tale of “Peter and the Wolf,” set to a symphony by Sergei Prokofiev in 1936 and choreographed into a ballet.
In 1920, the University of New Mexico adopted the lobo as its team mascot. A 1921 photograph shows the UNM football team with a live wolf.
With colonization, Europeans brought their wolf fears stateside. Their livestock flooded the territory. Wolves roared as more than personal predators; they threatened livelihoods.
Native tribes were more respectful. Wolves feature in creation stories, teachings, namings and cultural beliefs. For the Navajos, the wolf (ma’iitsoh in Diné, the Navajo language) serves as a messenger, a good omen for hunters, even a spiritual being for individuals and clans. For many Native Americans, the wolf symbolizes both the struggles of their people as well as resistance to colonization.
Today just 114 Mexican wolves survive in New Mexico, Maxwell Museum co-curator Devorah Romanek said.
Some of these may have already been poached.
“It’s kind of dire,” Romanek said.
The exhibition gathers photographs with objects such as traps, books, skulls and pelts, as well as a papier mâché wolf mask, fetishes carved by Zuni Pueblo artists and a Mata Ortiz clay wolf effigy tracing the interactions between wolves and humans.
Author and Boy Scouts founder Ernest Thompson Seton was a wolf bounty hunter in New Mexico who became an advocate for protection after an encounter with an especially elusive and dignified wolf he called Lobo.
Today, wolves continue to be at the center of debate about the American ecosystem.
As Euro-Americans expanded into the American West in the late 1800s, large numbers of animal predators were killed, disrupting natural predator-prey relationships. Over time, a high cattle influx, paired with declining elk and deer herds, encouraged wolves to turn to cattle. Subsequent state and federal bounties and eradication efforts effectively eliminated Mexican wolves from the U.S. and Mexico by the mid-1900s.
The passing of the Endangered Species Act in 1973 ignited interest in re-establishing Mexican wolves. In 1982, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved the Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan. This launched a captive breeding program composed of the few remaining animals: four males and a female named Nina. The program has now expanded to about 90 zoos, including the ABQ BioPark. Wolves were introduced in both Arizona and New Mexico. Today the Museum of Southwestern Biology at UNM is the repository for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Mexican Wolf Recovery Program.
The relationship between the recovery program and state agencies has been both long and fraught. Politicians and lobbyists are often interested in more short-term solutions relating to the economy, jobs and industry, particularly related to ranching and livestock protection, Romanek said. Researchers and scientists want to preserve the species for future generations, their interests rooted in the long-term well-being of the environment.
Research has shown that eliminating wolves is harmful to the ecosystem, Romanek said.
“Studies at Yellowstone (National Park) show once you remove the apex predator, others emerge like the coyote and they become a problem.
“The park became overcome by deer and much of the indigenous vegetation disappeared,” she continued. “Then the river filled with sediment. With the elimination of the wolf, everything else was endangered.”