By Mark Salvo and Wendy Keefover
Mexican wolves just can’t catch a break.
Not from ranchers. Not from politicos. And not from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, ironically, the agency charged with conserving the species.
In just the last week, the service has not only permanently removed a mother wolf of five pups from the wild for allegedly preying on a few cattle, but also declined to provide a more protective legal designation for the 59 wild Mexican wolves that struggle to persist in the Southwest.
Mexican wolves, or “lobos,” are the smallest, rarest and most distinct subspecies of western wolves, but the service, for no good reason, lists them as just another population of gray wolves under the Endangered Species Act. Separately listing Mexican wolves would highlight how rare and how difficult survival is for the lobos.
Last Friday the service had an opportunity to create a new paradigm for wolf recovery in the Southwest, one in which the remaining wolves that roam the Gila’s wildlands are no longer treated as second-class citizens. But the agency declined to do so.
You see, what’s hindering the recovery program the most is the agency’s “experimental nonessential” designation under which lobos were restored to the Gila. It means that, when push comes to shove, ranchers’ cows are more important than the magnificent, rare and critically endangered lobo – even though very few cattle are actually killed by wolves.
A new, separate listing under the Endangered Species Act would have subsequently required the service to revisit this troubling designation that the only wild population of Mexican wolves is somehow “experimental” and “nonessential” to the lobos’ survival. It’s a farce, and it’s no wonder the recovery program is failing.
Under the current designation, dozens of lobos have been killed, captured or simply disappeared from the recovery area. The Fish and Wildlife Service has declined to release more captive wolves into New Mexico, it has failed to vigorously protect wolves from poachers, and it has failed to expand the recovery area to provide existing wolf packs with more room to roam.
Other agencies appear to take their cue from the service’s passive management of the lobo. The Forest Service has refused to support conservation organizations and ranchers to close federal grazing allotments in wolf habitat. Working with willing ranchers to retire public lands grazing allotments in the recovery area is the most important action that we can take to recover Mexican wolves.
Government management has deteriorated to the point that this year WildEarth Guardians had to sue the State of New Mexico for – unbelievably – permitting trapping in Mexican wolf range.
The Endangered Species Act specifically allows for protection for separate subspecies of animals, and a separate listing would benefit the Mexican wolf recovery program. The re-listing process would require the agency to review every aspect of the current recovery effort and to chart a new course for Mexican wolf conservation in the Southwest.
More important, re-listing the lobo will cause the service to revisit the ridiculous “experimental, nonessential” designation for the wild population. Elevating the lobo’s status to “essential” would strengthen recovery efforts by prioritizing wolf conservation over other, potentially conflicting land uses and outlandish practices like indiscriminate trapping in the wolf recovery area.
The Endangered Species Act is an emergency room for imperiled species. The Mexican wolf has been saved by the law, but has remained in intensive care for more than three decades. Relisting the lobo was an important opportunity to make the lobo a first-class citizen under the Endangered Species Act, moving the lobo out of intensive care and onto a path to recovery, but the service failed to seize it.
Instead the agency incarcerated the Fox Mountain mother wolf for life for the crime of feeding her family.
Mark Salvo is wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians. Wendy Keefover directs the carnivore protection program for the organization.