wolf2.jpg (3388 bytes)The Continuing War
against the Mexican Wolf

On extinction's brink

The Mexican gray wolf is the most endangered mammal in North America. Native to northern Mexico and a wide swath of the American Southwest, the federal government poisoned, trapped and shot every Mexican wolf in the U.S. on behalf of the livestock industry.

Then the government shipped poison to ranchers south of the border and helped reduce the wolf population there to just five known individuals. Only after passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973 were those few wary survivors captured alive in a last-ditch effort to stave off extinction.

Those persevering five became unlikely pioneers, along with two other Mexican wolves already in captivity, in an emergency captive breeding program intended to allow reintroduction of the species into their native habitat.

The politics of reintroduction

The livestock industry pulled out all the stops to prevent a reintroduction. During the 1980's, the industry persuaded Reagan Administration officials to separate the male and female wolves in captivity – which would have resulted in the final extinction of the remainder of the species after they had been captured ostensibly to save them. A lawsuit by conservationists averted that disaster.

The industry did succeed in persuading the federal government to defer to weaker state governments in planning a reintroduction site. With the federal government abdicating its legal responsibility to decide where the wolves would have the best chance, the highly politicized New Mexico Game and Fish Commission, dominated by ranchers, stated its opposition to reintroduction anywhere in the state except White Sands Missile Range -- a relatively small, isolated tract without livestock, but also lacking any evidence of historic utilization by wolves.

The Arizona Game Commission, in contrast, conducted a biological assessment of several areas of historic wolf habitat, all of which they found could support wolves. One of these areas was the Blue Range managed by the Apache National Forest of southeastern Arizona.

Federal biologists knew the best habitat for wolves in the Southwest lay in and around the adjoining Gila National Forest of southwestern New Mexico. They drew recovery area boundaries encompassing both the Gila and the Apache National Forests. But to mollify New Mexico's opposition, they only gave themselves authority to release wolves from the captive population into the Apache National Forest -- premising the plan's success on the wolves' ability to migrate on their own to the Gila.

The reintroduction plan also included provisions for recapturing any wolves that preyed on livestock, with the option for re-releasing them anywhere in the bi-forest, bi-state recovery area. In such "translocation" scenarios -- but not when it came to captive wolves that hadn't previously been released -- they would have the authority to re-release wolves in the Gila. But over-all, the reintroduction plan was wholly written to meet ranchers' objections -- including a provision found nowhere else in endangered species recovery history guaranteeing any wolves that leave the recovery area -- even if they are on other public lands -- will be recaptured. And to assuage ranchers' opposition further, the private non-profit Defenders of Wildlife agreed to reimburse ranchers for any losses to the wolves.

Bogus science and frivolous pleadings

As the first 11 Mexican wolves were finally being prepared for life in the wild, the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association and the New Mexico Farm Bureau filed a lawsuit to shut down the reintroduction program. They claimed the wolves were not in fact Mexican wolves, but hybrids, and argued that reintroduction would harm the threatened Mexican spotted owl, another imperiled animal despised by area ranchers.

The Albuquerque Journal editorialized that "crocodile tears over the fate of the Mexican spotted owl are so contrary to the track record of ranching groups as to be bereft of credibility," and that "a federal judge might consider sanctions for filing frivolous pleadings."

Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity and other groups were granted intervener status at the trial, arguing for the wolves. Biologists testified that genetic evidence clearly indicated the wolves were pure-bred Mexican wolves, and no evidence pointed to any impact of wolves on owls. The suit was summarily dismissed.

Bullets and disappearances

The livestock industry ratcheted up its rhetoric, linking species recovery to the Nazi Holocaust. The Arizona Beef Council, in a presentation on "the wolf infestation of Eastern Arizona," compared wolf reintroduction to the "tactics used in prewar Germany when the green uniformed soldiers of Hitler's Third Reich isolated groups of people for neutralization." Within half a year of the historic March, 1998 reintroduction, five of the first eleven wolves had been shot, one disappeared without a trace, and the first wild born wolf in the U.S. in 70 years disappeared after its mother was shot. The government hastily re-captured the remaining wolves for their own safety, later letting them go again. But several other wolves released in 1999 and 2000, notwithstanding their radio tracking collars, have also mysteriously disappeared.. A jailhouse informant convicted of a poaching violation in Arizona stated on tape that livestock industry leaders had offered a bounty on the lives of all the wolves. The only person convicted of killing a wolf, James Michael Rogers from a longstanding ranching family in eastern Arizona, was sentenced in October 2000 to 4 months in jail and 6 months house arrest, followed by three years probation. The existence of a bounty has never been confirmed.


graphic Andrew Rodman ©2002
July 3, 2003
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