At turning point, wolf recovery project needs change

The Associated Press
Saturday May 12, 2001

PHOENIX — With the first significant number of wild-born pups expected this spring, scientists say a program aimed at restoring the Mexican gray wolf to its native Southwest is at a turning point. 

An independent preliminary report by three biologists concluded that the 3-year-old effort needs changes to ensure the pups survive and the project succeeds. Federal wildlife officials agree. 

“What’s really going to make the program succeed in the long run is having animals born in the wild,” said Brian Kelly, head of the program for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

The challenge is to switch the program’s direction from reintroduction to minimizing the endangered wolves’ contact with humans, including people who have shot them, campers who feed them and rangers who have had to recapture them too often. 

The Mexican gray wolf, a German shepherd-sized predator that once roamed throughout the U.S. Southwest and central Mexico, was hunted to near extinction in the 1950s.  

The only surviving animals lived in zoos or wildlife sanctuaries. 

Federal officials began working to change that in 1998, when they released 11 wolves in eastern Arizona’s Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. 

They wanted the animals to learn to hunt and mate again in the wild. Their goal was to have a population of 100 wild wolves in the forest area within 10 years. 

The program got off to a rough start, however, as ranchers began complaining that the wolves would kill livestock. Other problems followed. 

Five wolves were shot and the rest had to be recaptured, some because they were coming too close to people and livestock, that there were no wolves left in the wilderness at one point during the first year, said Kelly. 

Today, there are at least 26 wolves in the wild and they’re showing signs of adapting to life without humans.  

They’re eating elk and deer and, most importantly, they’re forming pairs, conceiving and nursing pups on their own. 

“They’re beginning to do what we were helping them to do,” said Kelley, though he added it will be years before the wolf is removed from the endangered species list. 

Since scientists expect six wild-born litters this spring and an average litter consists of four to six pups, the Mexican wolf’s population could conceivably double if most of the pups survive. 

The biologists’ report, which will be completed and released next month, said that requires leaving them alone more because too many recaptures disrupt their adaptation to the wild. 

Wolves are recaptured primarily when they stray from their recovery area or when they attack cattle.  

So the study suggests they might be allowed to roam in larger areas and not be captured if they scavenge livestock carcasses. The study even suggests that wolves only be removed if they threaten humans. 

But some ranchers who opposed the program from the beginning said that the rules are already so restrictive that the wolves can’t even be shot for attacking pets. 





“How much more are they going to inflict on everything and everybody?” said Barbara Marks, an Alpine rancher and a spokeswoman for the Arizona Cattlemen’s Association. “I couldn’t stand there and watch a wolf kill one of my dogs. We’ve no need for another predator.” 

Biologists and environmentalists say the Southwest needs wolves to maintain a natural balance. 

“Wolves are efficient landscape managers,” said Defenders of Wildlife spokesman Craig Miller. He said wolves help keep elk populations in check, which in turns reduces grazing and improves air and water quality. 

Kelly said learning to live with wolves also signals a new policy toward endangered species. 

“Our resolve to do something so controversial reflects that we’ve the wherewithal to live with something that competes with us humans,” Kelly said. 

The scientists’ report will be released next month and the Fish and Wildlife Service plans to hold public meetings in Arizona and New Mexico to discuss it. 

Members of the Arizona Game and Fish Commission will study the preliminary report at their monthly meeting Saturday. 


On the Net: 

Mexican Wolf Reintroduction: http://ifw2es.fws.gov/MexicanWolf/