One of the hallmarks of wolf recovery in New Mexico and Arizona is the intensity of emotion it ignites on both sides of the issue. (Wolves suck! Wolves rock!) For a moment, let's set those emotions aside and talk numbers instead.

Extirpated from the United States, Mexican gray wolves were reintroduced to the southwestern United States in 1998. Fifteen years ago this month, the US Fish and Wildlife Service released 11 wolves into the remote forests along the Arizona-New Mexico border.

According to the plan drawn up in the early 1980s, by 2006 there would be 100 wolves living in the recovery area. But by the time those first wolves were actually released, politics had intruded upon science to such an extent that what happens on the ground today is quite different from what scientists envisioned three decades ago.

In the late 1990s, when FWS finalized the project, it classified the Mexican gray wolf population as "nonessential experimental" rather than "endangered" or "threatened." The unique designation allowed FWS "greater management flexibility." (FWS enforces the Endangered Species Act and is mandated to protect and recover rare plants and animals.) With such a designation, the agency tried to assuage the fears of livestock owners and program opponents: If a wolf threatened livestock, FWS and its partners would remove that particular predator from the wild. And the agency has upheld that promise.

Between 1998 and 2012—at the same time they were releasing wolves and hoping the animals would survive and reproduce—program managers also removed 154 wolves from the wild. ("Removal" can mean an animal was killed; captured and moved to captivity; or captured and relocated elsewhere in the wild.)
Some were considered a "nuisance." Others were targeted because they had migrated outside the boundaries of the recovery area. But the majority of the removals—a total of 71—occurred because program managers believed the individual wolves threatened livestock. The most recent removal occurred in August 2012, when FWS captured the alpha female of the Fox Mountain Pack from the Gila National Forest and sent her packing to a facility in Scottsdale, Ariz.

In addition, the nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife created a program to compensate livestock owners for their losses. According to Southwest program director Eva Sargent, between 1998 and 2010, Defenders paid $147,867.55 to ranchers in New Mexico and Arizona. Since taking over the program in 2011, FWS has paid out another $30,543.34. The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish has kicked in $2,678.50, and currently, $4,750 in requests is pending. Individual payments range from $750 to $5,000; tallied up, they total $185,839.39.

Meanwhile, FWS has documented the deaths of 110 wolves in New Mexico and Arizona, according to data obtained by SFR through a federal Freedom of Information Act request. Since 1998, 43 were illegally shot and killed; two additional wolves may also have been shot.

Killing a Mexican gray wolf violates the Endangered Species Act and can result in $50,000 in criminal penalties, a year in jail, and/or a civil penalty of up to $25,000.

But the vast majority of the killings remain unsolved. And in 15 years, the federal government has pursued prosecution in the illegal killings of just four Mexican gray wolves.

The outcomes of those cases hardly inspire confidence that violations of the Endangered Species Act are taken seriously. In 1998, two individuals pled guilty to killing a female wolf in New Mexico. They forfeited two rifles; their combined sentences consisted of four months in jail, six months of home confinement, six years with no firearms, six years of probation and 410 hours of community service. In 2008, after pleading guilty to killing a male wolf in New Mexico, a shooter was sentenced to one year of probation, forfeited his firearms and was fined $10. Two years later, the federal government prosecuted two more cases, both in New Mexico.
One shooter was ordered to pay a $285 fine and $4,095 in restitution; the second was ordered to pay $275 in court costs and $1,000 in restitution.

None of those fines (or sentences) approach those laid out under the Endangered Species Act. And it's clear that Mexican gray wolves are worth more than $10, $275 or even $4,000. I'm not referring to the intrinsic right of a species to exist on this planet, or the incalculable worth of a predator to a healthy ecosystem. Nope. I'm actually being crass and capitalistic about the price tag that hangs around the neck of each Mexican gray wolf in the southwestern US. 

At the end of 2012, FWS announced it had documented 75 wild Mexican gray wolves within the recovery area. Over more than three decades, taxpayers have footed the $25 million price tag for the wolf recovery program. That means each of the wolves out in the wild right now is worth more than $333,000.

And that's an investment worth protecting.