A new political battle is brewing over Mexican wolves, a species that was hunted and poisoned to extinction in the U.S. Southwest, but reintroduced to the wild by the federal government in 1998. Earlier this week, the New Mexico Game Commission upheld an earlier decision denying the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) permits to release Mexican wolves onto federal land in southwestern New Mexico. According to FWS and independent scientists, such releases are critical for diversifying the gene pool of the increasingly inbred wolf population.
State officials have said they are unwilling to approve new releases until FWS updates its recovery plan for the wolf, which was written in 1982. Concerned about impacts to ranchers and elk hunters, they’ve pressed FWS for the total number of wolves it aims to restore to the landscape in the long-term. But the agency doesn’t have that number yet, and though it is updating the recovery plan, the process is likely to take at least 2 years.
Now, the federal agency must decide whether to release the wolves against the state’s wishes. Federal policy requires FWS to consult state agencies and comply with their permitting processes when releasing endangered animals from captivity, even when releases are made on federal land. But there’s one exception: If a state agency prevents the service from fulfilling its statutory responsibilities, the feds can go over the state’s head.
In this case, “our responsibility is to recover the Mexican wolf,” says FWS spokesman Jeff Humphrey. “Our recovery could be stalled, at best, by failing to be able to insert a more diverse gene pool into the existing wild population.”
Still, the agency is remaining vague about its next move. The agency’s top brass would have to reach a formal decision that it can’t recover the wolf without new releases for them to proceed without the state’s blessing, Humphrey says.
The effort to restore wolves to the Southwest has always been mired in controversy. In the Northern Rockies, gray wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park, a large protected area where neither cattle grazing nor big game hunting are allowed. In the case of the Mexican wolf, however, the 18,100-square-kilometer recovery area straddling Arizona and New Mexico is national forest land that is both grazed and hunted, which has increased human conflict with the animals.
Over the years, the feds have made concessions to the states. In the beginning, for example, New Mexico rejected the release of captive animals within its borders (though wolves could wander in on their own), so the feds didn’t try. But because most of the recovery area is in New Mexico, that left only a small swath of Arizona for the animals. Wolves populated that area fairly quickly, making it difficult to make additional releases, which became few and far between.
On top of that, any wolves that roamed outside the official recovery area were captured and kept in captivity, or released back into their approved wild habitat. Wolves that killed cattle also were removed from the wild, sometimes by killing them. Wolves were poached, and some were baited by ranchers to predate on cattle and violate a “three strikes” rule, which allowed the feds to kill them.
When wolves were removed from the wild, however, their genetic value to the population was never considered. And a series of removals in the mid-2000s left only one pack on the landscape that had high reproductive success, says Rich Fredrickson, an independent population geneticist based in Missoula, Montana, who serves on the recovery team.
That pack’s dominance has created inbreeding problems. The individuals in the wild population today are, on average, as related as siblings, Fredrickson says. “This is the poster child, in my mind at least, in North America for the need to pay close attention to genetic management,” he says.
Last year, FWS biologists estimated the population of Mexican wolves at 109 animals, the highest it’s been since reintroduction and double its size in 2010. It’s important to try to diversify the gene pool while the population is still small, biologists say; the larger it gets, the less likely management actions are to be effective.
The agency had hoped to introduce some greater genetic diversity this summer by “cross-fostering” pups; that’s a process in which pups born in the wild are removed from dens and replaced with pups born in captivity. It also wanted to release a mating pair currently being held at the Sevilleta Wolf Management Facility in La Joya, New Mexico, if they had pups.
New Mexico says no
A federal rule change earlier this year opened the door for releases in New Mexico, and also expanded the territory where wild wolves would be allowed to roam. But in June, Alexa Sandoval, director of New Mexico’s Department of Game and Fish, declined to issue permits for the release of the mating pair, or cross-fostering pups, arguing that the feds have not provided specific criteria which must be met for recovery of the wolf to be considered successful, nor detailed the steps it must take to get there.
The Game Commission, a seven-member body appointed by the governor that oversees Sandoval’s agency and sets its policies, upheld her decision on 29 September after hearing an appeal from FWS last month. In August, the Arizona Game and Fish Commission also voted to not allow the release of adult wolves from captivity, but to allow as many as six pups per year to be cross-fostered.
On its own, however, cross fostering won’t solve the wolves’ genetic woes, researchers say. For it to help at all, the pups have to survive and breed. “In general, lots of pups die in captivity and the wild,” Fredrickson says.
Cross-fostering introduces additional complications: Genetically valuable pups must be born in captivity at almost exactly the same time as a wild litter, and managers have to closely monitor wild wolves to know that has happened. The pups then have to be swapped within 2 weeks of birth. “To the extent they can do cross-fostering, that’s great, but it’s not going to be enough,” Fredrickson says. “They need to increase releases.”