When I was the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, I was fortunate enough to take part in the release of 11 Mexican gray wolves into Arizona’s Apache National Forest in 1998.
I will never forget the light in their eyes as we released the lobos from the confines of their crates, destined for a new life in the wilderness where they belong. This came after we had worked hard to restore wolves to the Yellowstone region just a few years before.
Back then, our hopes were certainly high for these icons of American wilderness.
Recently, however, the thrill of seeing gray wolves returning to the Southwest and across the country has been tainted by the fact that Fish and Wildlife has announced its intention to abandon wolf restoration before the job is done. Wolves are still not recovered in suitable habitat in Colorado, the Pacific Northwest and California — wild places that can offer a good home to this species. In fact, wolves occupy only about 36 percent of currently suitable habitat nationwide.
Delisting gray wolves across the nation is premature and will negatively impact the species’ long-term recovery, but unfortunately, this is not the worst of it for America’s wolves. Another of Fish and Wildlife’s recent proposals makes it almost impossible for the lobo to ever recover — putting this rarest wolf on the path to a second extinction in the wild. While the imperiled population of only about 75 individuals will remain on the endangered species list, the service’s proposal for its continued management makes the future for these wolves look dim.
The single wild population, restricted to Arizona and New Mexico’s Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area, is struggling in the face of critically low numbers, a lack of genetic diversity and being kept from suitable habitat in which to disperse. If the lobos are going to survive, they need much more than a “smoke and mirrors” plan that, by ignoring science and good sense, obstructs the path to recovery.
Real recovery of Mexican gray wolves will require the completion and implementation of a recovery plan that incorporates updated science, the release of new breeding pairs into the wild and the establishment of at least two new core populations.
And herein lies the proposal’s gravest sin: The most suitable areas of habitat in the Southwest are in the Grand Canyon region and in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado — beyond the new arbitrary land borders the proposal sets up for wolves. Fish and Wildlife knows the lobos desperately need access to these areas, so why has it proposed a plan that does the opposite; effectively ensuring the lobo will never recover?
Recent polls have shown that residents of Arizona and New Mexico strongly support the restoration of Mexican gray wolves — in fact, 87 percent of voters in both states agree that wolves are a vital part of our heritage. Eight in 10 voters agree that Fish and Wildlife should make every effort to prevent extinction, with more than seven in 10 in Arizona and nearly as many in New Mexico agreeing that wolves should be restored to suitable habitat in the region.
As the people concur, lobos are, indeed, iconic animals and beyond that, they are crucial for healthy ecosystems.
But despite the ecological and cultural significance of the wolves and the importance they hold in the eyes of the public, it seems our government doesn’t really want to hear what the people have to say about finishing the job of lobo recovery. With only one hearing to take public comments on the fate of the Mexican gray wolves scheduled for the whole region, we have to find as many opportunities as possible to speak out for the lobos before it is too late.
I don’t want to visit Arizona and New Mexico, Colorado and Utah in the years to come and have to accept that these are places where the wild things used to roam.
I don’t want to stand on a ridge in the Grand Canyon straining to hear a howl that will never come.
I want to remember the beautiful eyes that I saw in the Apache National Forest and know that the lobos are alive and well, running freely not just there, but across the region that was their home before it was ours.