Just home from a camping trip within the territory of the Hawk's Nest wolf pack in eastern Arizona, activist Jean Ossorio complains that the US Fish and Wildlife Service has released only one new wolf into the wild within the past four years. Worse, she says, the federal agency heading up the reintroduction and recovery effort of the Mexican gray wolf has delayed the planned release of a pack of wolves she calls the Engineer Springs Eight.
"These animals have been waiting patiently at Sevilleta all summer and fall, after being paired specifically in order to reproduce and be released into the wild to enhance the genetic diversity of the wild population," Ossorio says, referring to Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, where captive wolves are held. "They did their part, producing five healthy pups." (The eighth wolf is another pack's male that was placed with the other adult pair while in captivity.)
For a time this summer, it seemed as though political and administrative decisions would benefit the wolves. At the urging of environmental groups, Gov. Bill Richardson issued an executive order directing the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish to temporarily ban commercial trapping within the wolf recovery area.
Then, in August, the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it would study whether the Mexican gray wolf deserved reclassification as an endangered species. The move came in response to a legal petition from the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity. Fish and Wildlife listed the Mexican gray wolf for protection under the Endangered Species Act in 1976. But decades of political, legal and inter-departmental wrangling left the gray wolf's status unclear. If the agency follows through with reclassification, Mexican gray wolves in the Southwest would be protected even if the general population of gray wolves nationwide were removed from protection under the act.
But staffing issues at Fish and Wildlife are currently up in the air. Key personnel have left the wolf program in recent months, including the leader of the field team in Alpine, Ariz. And, in mid-November, the recovery coordinator of the Mexican gray wolf program was reassigned to another position within Fish and Wildlife Service's Ecological Services Field Office in Albuquerque: Bud Fazio had joined the gray wolf team only recently, in April 2009.
Not only that but, so far this year, two Mexican gray wolves have been illegally shot, while the deaths of three others remain under investigation. All told, at the end of October, there were only 24 wolves with functional radio collars dispersed among 10 packs within the recovery area that straddles Arizona and New Mexico. Biologists believe some uncollared wolves associate with those wearing radio collars, and still others may be separate from known packs. But the number of Mexican gray wolves living within the recovery area is far less than what biologists envisioned when they first released wolves into Arizona's Apache National Forest in the early spring of 1998. According to the plan, by 2006, there should have been a minimum population of 100 wolves. The numbers have also dipped in recent years; in 2003, there were 55 wolves in the wild.
"I know this might sound a little Pollyannaish, but I do think the program has had some degree of success," Fish and Wildlife Service Public Affairs Specialist Tom Buckley says. "First of all, it's still in existence—and that's something in an area where it's been so controversial—and we do still have wolves out in the wild. Even considering the small numbers, I think that is an accomplishment."
He points out that Fish and Wildlife just mailed letters inviting stakeholders to participate in the creation of a new recovery plan. Currently, the service relies on a recovery plan released in 1982. Fish and Wildlife is also working on an "interdiction program" that will not only compensate ranchers for livestock lost to wolves, but distribute money for projects that might keep cattle and wolves separate and therefore reduce livestock kills. Such projects include hiring extra range riders, removing cattle from nearby wolf dens and offering an alternative grazing area.
Beyond how controversial the program has been—many ranchers have consistently opposed reintroduction efforts, and most of the illegal shootings have undoubtedly occurred at the hands of anti-wolf gunmen—agencies have faced unforeseen biological challenges, Buckley says.
The biggest problem is identifying why so few pups are being born and surviving in the wild.
"It's a struggle to maintain the numbers when you don't have the recruitment in the wild," he says, adding that genetics are a concern, as well. When captive-bred wolves are released into the wild, biologists have to ensure they aren't making a "bad genetic mix" with nearby wolves with whom they might pair.
This year has been somewhat of a roller coaster, John Horning, executive director of the nonprofit WildEarth Guardians, says. But he's hopeful the January 2011 population count will show an increasing number of wolves living within the recovery area.
"Any good news will be largely because of the resilience of wolves, not because of the benevolence of government," he says. "Fish and Wildlife could be putting lots of wolves back out on the ground, and making it clear from a political perspective and an ecological perspective that there is a commitment to see wolves thrive on this landscape and wolves fully recovered on this landscape."
There are other ways to help the wolves, he notes—most significantly, by retiring grazing leases within the recovery area. The best way to reduce conflict between cattle and ranchers is to remove cattle from within the recovery area.
Over the past couple of years, WildEarth Guardians has met with approximately a dozen permittees—ranchers who pay small fees for the right to graze their cattle on public lands—and talked with them about retiring their grazing permits with the US Forest Service.
The organization has money in the bank and interested ranchers, Horning says. But the Forest Service has resisted the idea, even though it has worked in areas adjacent to Yellowstone National Park. There, efforts by the Northern Rocky Mountain Wolf Recovery Plan have yielded an estimated 1,500-2,000 wolves. (In 2008, in fact, Fish and Wildlife decided that recovery efforts were so successful that the wolves could be removed from protection under the Endangered Species Act, except in certain places—southern Montana, Idaho south of Interstate 90, and all of Wyoming—where they were classified as an experimental population. Just this year, a federal court reinstated that protection.)
"We have a couple of very motivated ranchers on allotments that are within the wolf rec area—one of which is 90,000 acres and has pretty good wolf habitat—just outside an existing pack's range," Horning says. "We're disappointed at the moment, but it's the single most important strategy over the long haul."
It's only a matter of time, he says, until they successfully retire a grazing allotment. "And once we're successful executing it on one area, we'll do it on two," he says. "And once we've done it at four, then six, eight and on up."