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Who's Afraid of...

The big bad wolf? When it comes to New Mexico’s recovery program, the real fear is the wolves won’t be saved

July 15, 2009, 12:00 am

Thanks to trigger-happy hunters and aggressive government bounty programs, by the mid-19th century, wolves had completely disappeared from the Southwest.

With only seven known alive in the wild, biologists realized the animal would soon be extinct—a problem that not only affected the species itself, but the ecosystem it inhabited.

In 1976, the federal government listed the Mexican gray wolf for protection under the nation’s Endangered Species Act. The following year, biologists began capturing wolves in Mexico—they found five—and began establishing a captive breeding program.

The Fish and Wildlife Service convened a recovery team and, in 1982, released a long-term recovery plan. Studies were completed, 18,000 public comments analyzed, lawsuits filed—on behalf of both environmentalists who supported the animal’s recovery as well as the livestock industry, which still opposes it today—and the agency sponsored hundreds of hours of meetings, hearings and public meetings.

And on March 29, 1998, with documents in place and decisions signed, biologists released the first wolves from pens in the Apache National Forest in Arizona.

“Our job was to go out late in the afternoon—that is, when it was still light—and open up the gates,” Fish and Wildlife Service’s former wolf coordinator Dave Parsons says. Managers had learned from the Yellowstone Park wolf reintroduction program in Montana that gates needed to be installed at the back of the pen, Parsons says; the Yellowstone animals didn’t want to go through the same gates they associated with their caretakers.

“So we went and opened those gates and attached motion-sensor video cameras to trees nearby to try and capture on film the event,” he says. They then retreated to their tents, waiting for dawn to break to see what the wolves had done.

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Courtesy Dave Parsons

In 1999, Dave Parsons retired from the US Fish and Wildlife Service to take advantage of a federal pension program; when he reapplied for his job the next day—as part of a what he thought was an agreed-upon plan—the agency refused to re-hire him, a move environmentalists still today say was meant to thwart the recovery program

“I can remember heading out that next morning and finding wolf tracks in the snow outside the pen for the first time in oh, probably 50 years in that country,” he says, “And then we got out our radio tracking gear and set about to see just where they’d gone.”

Recalling that morning, Parsons speaks of his hope for the program, which he headed up for nine years. Seven of his years there involved planning—paperwork, public meetings, environmental studies—necessary steps toward opening those gates and knowing wolves were retuning to the landscape.

In its 1982 recovery plan, the Fish and Wildlife Service had called for establishing a minimum population of 100 animals within their historic range; that number was the threshold by which to measure the effort’s success. In a separate document, it anticipated the wolf population would reach that number in 2006.

The program went “pretty well” until 2003, Parsons, who now works for the nonprofit Rewilding Institute, says. “The wild populations tracked our predictions almost—remarkably precisely—up to the end of 2003, where we predicted there would be 55 wolves, and the annual count was 55 wolves,” he says.

But then in 2003, the population started to decline. By the end of 2008, there were only 52 wolves estimated in the wild. “There’s been no real progress toward meeting the reintroduction objective of at least 100 wolves for the past five-plus years,” he says. “That’s pretty frustrating.”

So what exactly occurred in 2003?

That was the year the Fish and Wildlife Service signed an agreement establishing a new model for making management decisions, administered by the Adaptive Management Oversight Committee. In addition to the Fish and Wildlife Service, the committee consists of state, local and tribal partners. AMOC has been roundly criticized by activists—many of whom refer to it by its acronym, pronouncing it “amok,” rather than the preferred “A-mock.”

“Under AMOC, [the Fish and Wildlife Service] has managed to give away their statutory responsibility to recover endangered species to a consortium of agencies,” advocate Michael Robinson, who has been tracking the wolf program since the 1990s, says. One of AMOC’s management practices, Standard Operating Procedure 13, declares that any wolf known or suspected to have killed livestock on three occasions during a one-year period will be removed.

These “removals” can be lethal or non-lethal means of taking individual wolves out of the wild—and they are currently the leading cause of wolf removals from the wild. In fact, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s coordinator Fazio, agency personnel have removed a total of 70 wolves from the wild.

For comparison’s sake, 30 have been illegally shot (including five last year), 12 have been struck by vehicles, 10 have died from natural causes and nine from unknown causes.

In other words, of the various ways they might leave the wild, more wolves are being removed—or killed—by the very people charged with reintroducing the animals to the wild.

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