Mexican wolves nearly disappeared from the Southwest in the early 1900s, but reintroduction efforts that began about 25 years ago brought them back from the brink of extinction.
The updated recovery plan aims to further protect endangered wolves through increased law enforcement, education and outreach to communities near where wolves live. But there are critics who say the update doesn’t go far enough.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s final revised recovery plan, released Oct. 5, will strengthen law enforcement in areas identified as hotspots for wolf deaths. The goal is to prevent illegal killings, investigate dead wolves, and protect wolves with partners in other law enforcement agencies.
Today, about 200 Mexican wolves live in the wild across Arizona-New Mexico—a small fraction of their historic range. Officials hope to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the reintroduction program next year with a population of more than 200 and more genetically diverse.
Cross-breeding is a key part of Mexican wolf reintroduction efforts. It involves breeding werewolves in captivity and then placing their cubs in wild dens. In addition, some wolves have been born in the wild since the program began.
“Human-caused mortality comes in a variety of ways,” said Jim deVos, Mexican wolf coordinator for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. “Wolves get hit by passing cars on the freeway, I think there are probably a few that are accidentally hit and certainly some on purpose.”
According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, fourteen wolves were illegally killed in 2020, and six died in motor vehicle collisions.
The first revision of Mexico’s wolf recovery plan in 2017 did not do enough to eliminate human deaths, deVos said. The second comes after the U.S. District Court in Arizona sent the 2017 plan back to a lower court for reconsideration in October 2021.
DeVos said Mexican wolves, a subspecies of the gray wolf, are not large and can be mistaken for coyotes. For that reason, Arizona Game & Fish is working on tools to help the public, including posting information about wolves in the department’s annual Hunting Guide.
“We put them in sporting goods stores, places that hunters frequent,” deVos said. “The focus is on increasing public recreation, public education and law enforcement to try to minimize the number of wolves killed as part of the recovery plan.”
Aislinn Maestas with the Fish and Wildlife Service said in an email interview that implementation of the updated recovery plan would lead to the goal of establishing two populations in the Mexican wolf’s historic range in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and northern Mexico.
“Generally, based on the threats affecting the species, we determine what types of activities will be beneficial in species recovery,” Maestas said. “Therefore, we have developed activities in the plan to address these issues from several aspects, such as increased law enforcement to prevent illegal capture, education and publicity to increase public understanding of wolves.”
Maestas said recovery plans will be revised if the court decides on revisions, as in the case of the Mexican wolf, or if additional science becomes available about the species.
“The revised plan includes new site-specific management measures to address the threat of human fatalities, including illegal killing,” Maestas said. “The changes apply to the court-ordered restitution portion of the plan and do not include any changes to the recovery strategy or criteria.”
Some organizations, such as the Center for Biological Diversity, want more improvements in the recovery plan.
Michael Robison, the center’s senior conservation advocate, said Mexican wolves will lose their endangered status when they reach a certain number — a number he says is too low. If the population averages 200 wolves over eight years, Mexican wolves will be delisted. He also worries about the wolves’ narrow distribution, “which doesn’t use all the habitat that could help them recover.”
Robinson said the plan wants to address livestock conflicts and the “more effective” release of captives into the wild.
According to a Fish and Wildlife news release, the latest revision includes “cattle rotation, use of turf in sensitive areas such as calving areas, fence repair and maintenance, hunting and range riders.”
Robinson said the best way to prevent conflicts between wolves and livestock is to remove the carcasses of the livestock.
“The most important of those (revisions) is to require livestock owners to remove the carcasses of horses that die from causes other than livestock or, in some cases, wolves, disease or noxious weeds or bad weather or lightning or other predators. all these are the things that kill the animals there,” he said.
Wolves will stay in an area where they find a dead animal, Robinson said, which can lead to wolves killing a live animal.
More information on Mexican wolves is another thing Robinson wants to revisit. Increased education for those living in areas close to Mexican wolves is part of the latest recovery plan revisions.
“I’d like to see the Fish and Wildlife Service continue to put up signs warning people of the presence of wolves,” he said, “let them know it’s illegal to shoot them under these circumstances, and even provide a little schematic. A little picture showing the difference between a wolf and a coyote.”
Wolf recovery efforts in Mexico involve multiple agencies, with Fish and Wildlife in charge.
“A team of scientists, biologists, field staff led by the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Arizona Game and Fish Department, the New Mexico Game and Fish Department, USDA APHIS Wildlife Services, the Forest Service and the White Mountain Apache Tribe are working. concert against what we call recovery,” deVos said.
“In 1998, there was no wild wolf on the landscape,” deVos said. “Now we have 196. This past year we had 35 pairs that were litters that we know of. So no matter where the final game is or what the score is, we’re making progress.”