This fall, for the second time, the New Mexico Game and Fish Commission rejected a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposal to release two adult Mexican wolves with pups, and up to 10 captive-born wolf pups, into the Mexican Wolf Recovery Area in southern Arizona and New Mexico.
An important part of the release, which was planned for next spring, involved fostering the 10 motherless pups with wild wolves that came from packs with good track records of preying on elk, not cattle.
The larger goal was to increase the genetic diversity of the 110 Mexican wolves now in the wild, a subspecies smaller and lighter than the northern gray wolf and uniquely adapted to the Southwest.
The federal agency has made it clear: The clock is ticking for the Mexican wolf. When packs have too many genetically similar wolves, it doesn’t bode well for their survival.
But the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish has also made it clear that it will continue to thwart wolf reintroduction in New Mexico, even though the reintroduction is mandated by federal law and supported by a majority of citizens. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service now has to decide whether to go ahead with wolf reintroduction against the state agency’s wishes.
Loss of biodiversity often seems to be collateral damage from basic human activities, such as growing crops, mining ore or building houses. But there are also targeted losses like this one – and they are instructive.
In the 1980s, some New Mexico citizens began a movement to return the wolf to their public lands. The animal had been vigorously – one might say hysterically – poisoned, trapped and finally exterminated.
So in 1998, 11 wolves born and raised in captivity were radio-collared and released in a recovery area of over 4.4 million acres. This strategy worked. The animals quickly readapted; they formed packs, bred, hunted and howled. They were home again.
But some of the people living closest to those public lands have been reducing the wolf population by shooting them. They build unnecessary wooden enclosures to “protect” their children waiting for school buses on roads and highways. They put up billboards next to gas stations and rural post offices that warn, “Beware! Wolves Nearby! Keep Kids and Pets Close!”
The current hysteria around the wolf may be part of a larger fear, as these rural communities face increasing economic hardship and an uncertain future. The resistance to wolf reintroduction is also a stubborn denial of the well-known cycle of prey and predator necessary for ecological health. And it is a refusal to accept the will of the majority of Americans, who want wolves, wildness and biodiversity.
Well, we can all be stubborn and opinionated. I also live next to these public lands – the Gila National Forest in southwestern New Mexico – and I am loathe to judge my neighbors for faults I might share. I do, however, hold the state Game and Fish commissioners accountable for their decision to subvert the reintroduction of an endangered species. Don’t they have training in ecology or wildlife management? And don’t they represent all of New Mexico, as well as the laws we all live under?
In 1998, the same year the Mexican wolves were first released, the writer David Quammen coined the phrase “planet of weeds.” His argument was that habitat loss and degradation would result in an earth inhabited by scrappy, adaptable “weedy” species that reproduced quickly and cohabited well with Homo sapiens – the ultimate weed. We would become a planet of generalists: rats, cockroaches, pigeons, deer.
So far, fortunately, that hasn’t happened – at least not yet, not in my part of the West. I live in a healthy ecosystem that still includes mountain lions in the hills and native trout in the rivers. I regularly see foxes, coati, javelina, tiger beetles and vermillion flycatchers, as well as coyotes and deer, generalists and specialists both. I live in rich abundance. Yes, the river otter is gone. So, too, the grizzly, the jaguar, the prairie dog. Maybe, now, the Mexican wolf.
How easily could we slip into becoming a “planet of weeds”? Here in the Southwest, climate change is a hot wind at our backs. We need Mexican wolves to flourish; we need to protect every species that we can, as fast as we can. And we desperately need leaders who will work to preserve – not destroy – an abundance that we have come to take too much for granted.
Sharman Apt Russell is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. She is a writer in Silver City, N.M.