The Mexican gray wolf still struggles to survive in the American southwest

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The Mexican gray wolf is a subspecies of the Gray Wolf. Mexican wolf at the El Paso Zoo. (Ezra Rodriguez/Borderzine.com)

The Mexican gray wolf is a subspecies of the Gray Wolf. Mexican wolf at the El Paso Zoo. (Ezra Rodriguez/Borderzine.com)

EL PASO – After almost 14 years of effort to reintroduce the Mexican gray wolf into the American southwest, less than 60 lobos roam today in the 4 million acre territory along the Arizona-New Mexico line.

It seems that life is not getting any easier for the lobo. In 1970, predator control programs almost drove the wolves into extinction until efforts to reintroduce them started in 1998.

Currently in New Mexico and Arizona only 58 Mexican wolves survive, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In 1998 wildlife officials estimated that by 2006 the wolf population would have reached 100 in the region. Federal trapping and shooting and illegal killings have contributed to keeping the numbers of Mexican gray wolves low.

Even though it is rare to encounter one of these creatures in the wild because of their small numbers, humans are the main threat to their existence.

Poachers and ranchers have shot many wolves illegally. Others have poisoned wolves both intentionally and unintentionally by the use of pesticides.

Groups such as the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association have opposed the reintroduction of wolves since the program began.

“The New Mexico Cattle Growers Association does not support the reintroduction of wolves because the program has been a complete failure from its beginning because the plan did not take ranchers into consideration,” said Caren Cowan, Executive director of NMCGA.

Many ranchers share the belief that wolf reintroduction has not worked. Their main opposition has been concern for the protection of their livestock.

“It’s impossible to come up with a number for lost cattle, you hear everything from hundreds to tens of thousands, it’s somewhere in between that” said Cowan.

In 2010, the National Agriculture Statistics Services reported predators throughout New Mexico had killed 9,900 head of cattle, a $5.3 million loss. Wolves accounted for 2.4 per cent of that number. Only nine confirmed livestock depredations by wolves were recorded that year.

Ranchers who have been affected have been reimbursed according to the Center of Biological Diversity website. Wolves usually prey on large animals, but if given the opportunity they will hunt down young animals.

The NMCGA does not believe the amount paid by the reimbursing program is enough to cover for the loss.

“The compensation program is just a band-aid on the problem, the program didn’t take into account that a heifer could have given birth to 10 or 12 more calves” said Cowan. A head of cattle is valued at $894 and a head of calve is worth $354 in New Mexico according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Cattle Death Loss report for May 2011.

Like every living organism, the Mexican gray wolf plays an important role in their natural ecosystem by keeping the populations of prey species under control.

“Wolves, target the weaker members of elk and deer herds, this is a way of keeping the herds healthy because they lower the number of ‘weak links,’” wrote Breanne Cordier, the research technician in the Behavior Lab at the New Mexico State University, in an email.

In the 1920’s gray wolves were killed off in Yellowstone National Park, which had a dramatic impact on the ecological balance of the area.

“Elk and deer population had gotten too large and had began to over-graze areas immediately on rivers and creeks, which decreased vegetation that birds used for nesting, beavers used for habitat, insects used for food and fish used for concealment,” said Cordier.

Mexican gray wolves also compete with other canines for territory. Coyotes have accounted for about 25% of the total cattle losses in New Mexico according to the USDA Cattle Loss Report.

“If wolves where to be completely killed off, the coyote population would grow too large for a healthy balance,” Cordier said.

“In the case of coyote overpopulation, rabbits and rodents may drop in numbers, decreasing the prey base for owls, hawks, falcons, snakes, and other species. This would also potentially affect the dispersal of plants, as rodents and rabbits spread seeds by eating them then passing them in their feces,” said Cordier.

The Mexican wolf, a subspecies of the gray wolf, is the smallest and one of the rarest gray wolves in North America. On average, a Mexican gray wolf weighs between 60-80 lbs. and is about the size of a German Shepherd. Male wolves are typically heavier and taller than their female counterparts.

Like most wolves, Mexican gray wolves live in a complex social structure of extended family groups known as packs. The packs consist of a breeding adult pair (alpha male and female) and their offspring. This social hierarchy of dominant and subordinate animals in parks is what helps the pack to work in harmony.

Mexican gray wolves are known to prey on large hoofed mammals, referred to as angulates like elk and deer. They also eat small mammals like rabbits, squirrels, and mice. The social problems arise on the rare occasions they prey on livestock.

Their mating season starts in the first two months of the year. Female wolves have a gestation period of about 63 days and may give birth to four to seven pups.

Pups are born blind and defenseless and are taken care of by the pack until they reach to 10 months. In captivity, wolves are known lo live up to 15 years.

The Mexican wolf was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 with efforts to keep the species alive starting in 1982. But it was not until 1998 that the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior gave approval to reintroduce 11 Mexican wolves to the wild in Arizona and New Mexico.

Defenders of Wildlife have been joining forces with Arizona and New Mexico landowners in efforts to keep cattle and wolves apart. In 2010, Defenders of Wildlife aided in the installment of fences and the employment of additional range riders in order to help avoid conflict between prey and predator.

To keep the Mexican gray wolf alive for future generations both sides must come to an agreement. “In general, for the Mexican gray wolf to successfully recover, more public support is needed. Helping people learn about the Mexican gray wolf and its importance to the environment, and ultimately humans, is a good way to aid the recovery,” said Cordier.

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  1. This article is a great example of the problem with reintroducing wolves. Until we stop using made up scientific facts and half truths we just aren’t going to get anywhere.

    There is no balance of nature. Every time I read “balance” I shudder, and I see that word in the tags accompanying this story. Balance isn’t, it’s a disproven hypothesis that has been tossed to the dustbin of science to accompany such things as a flat earth and astrology. You can’t discuss the space shuttle with someone who believes in a flat earth, and you can’t discuss predator / prey relationships with someone who believes in “balanced” nature.

    Ungulates not angulates. Angulated fracture is where the bones don’t line up.

    According to the web site of Yellowstone National Park elk had never exceeded historic norms, were not overgrazing, and were not harmful to the ecosystem. But they are just the people who run the park, what do they know? http://www.nps.gov/yell/naturescience/northrng.htm

    Quoting opinionated sources does nothing to assist in the reintroduction of the Mexican Gray Wolf, to reach a consensus and a common ground you need to begin with the same set of facts. If you are going to quote Defenders of Wildlife or the Center for Biologic Diversity you should also call Lobo Watch and Big Game Forever, or better yet instead of seeking polarized advocates why not ask a rancher?

  2. The actual number of cattle lost to wolves is so small that the National Agricultural Statistics Service doesn’t even list wolves as their own category, grouping them instead under “Other Predators.” This category was only responsible for 0.65 percent of total cattle loss in New Mexico and 0.21 percent in Arizona in 2005. More than 40 times more cattle are lost to respiratory problems in the Southwest than to “Other Predators.” (Info from http://www.chihuahuandesert.org)

  3. Stacey Sowards
    Stacey Sowards on

    This is an excellent story that draws attention to an endangered species in crisis. Another point not mentioned in this article is the effects of the border wall, and cross border migration patterns of the gray wolf. Thanks for writing this article!

  4. Debbie Laney on

    what they fail to mention, is the count is ONLY for collared wolves…..there are a lot more out there that don’t wear a collar. and yet, people lap this stuff up like it was strawberry kool-aid. you need to get the facts straight.

  5. I shudder when ranchers claim that paying for a cow lost to depredation is not enough. We should also pay for all of its unborn offsping. Give me a break, we’re giving them money to buy a new cow that can have its own offspring. Debt paid! The creativity of rancher attempts to game the system in their favor is endless! And everyone should remember that when considering the exaggerated claims about how livestock are dying by predation. The demonstrable facts don’t bear that out.

  6. Yellowstone NP was devastated after the Timber wolves and other top predators were wiped out. Elk be came such an environmental disaster that park officials tried rounding them up and shooting them while penned. Returning the wolves to Yellowstone returned the land to a healthy balance unseen I my lifetime. The film Lords of Nature covers this issue very well. I was first introduced to the film by a friend who told me returning wolves to Yellowstone increased the trout population. I was skeptical, until I watched Lords of Nature. Now I believe.

  7. Somsai Excellent response to the hyperbole…. I too get nauseated by the “balance” myth & garbage science on radical groups like the Center for Biodiversity. The abuse of the Endangered Species Act & EAJA needs to end! Support Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis & her efforts for reform!

  8. Meadow, are you of the thinking that the paid depredation are the only damage done by wolves? Is it your thinking that when wolves kills a calf there is no effect on the rest of the herd? How many fences were fixed have to be fixed in the name of the wolf? How many fetuses lost from run cattle? Does the rancher get reimbursed for that? If the wolf hugging biologist Mech testified before congress saying that only one in six depredations can/are being confirmed…. what is the true number? If the USDA says the ratio of confirmed to non-confirmed is one in twenty, what is the true number? How much sleep has the rancher lost worrying about what the morning might bring? How much extra work goes into keeping livestock closer to home in the presence of wolves? Who is pays for the non-lethal nonsense? How many acres of PRIVATE range land are not fully utilized because of the threat of wolves? The Mexican Gray wolf program is a failure because groups you probably support continue to fight the removal of chronic depredating wolves, hide behind a non-lethal programs that are a joke and continue to berate, criticize, and condemn the rancher!

  9. Gary Cascio Your whole state statistics are a joke ….. you fool no one! What do the deaths of cattle outside of wolf saturated areas have to do with wolves. To make your numbers really look good why don’t you include the cattle from Texas and Colorado. You only inferioate ranchers with wolf problems!

  10. First, there is NO compensation program! It ended 3 years ago, it’s over Defenders of Wildlife chose not to pay for their advocated wolf program any longer.
    Second, Debbie is right 58 is the minimum number of collared animals not the maximum number.
    Third, ranchers are being forced to bear the brunt of the depredations without mitigation or compensation and they are doing so as individuals and going out of business or not being able to make mortgage payments when a wolf pack has been on them for a breeding season. This has occurred dozens of times. It is not ethical to force one individual to pay for the upkeep of a single wolf pack just so the members of the Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife can be happier. Yet, that is what is happening. The state of NM may have more coyote kills than wolf kills but that one entity at a time is dealing with all wolf kills so comparing those so called factual statistics is not relevant. That rancher with the wolf pack on him is not receiving equal justice under the law or compensation. Fourth, many of the Mexican wolves are thoroughly habituated whether through captive breeding or feeding them as is still going on long past rule standards so having them around your home and children has proven hazardous. Fifth only one rancher has been known to have accidentally shot a wolf. So no, poachers and ranchers are not killing all the wolves. There are over 400 in captivity in the breeding program that wolves can be replaced with so why the FWS are leaving killer packs on individual ranchers and not focusing on actual recovery is beyond most people. But really, why bother doing anything at all, the media is so adept at not actually getting the story that FWS is free to play this game into perpetuity using other people’s money time and resources to cover up their inept management.

  11. All you people who think nature has no balance clearly know nothing about established Biology. If you don’t belive me look up the report from the Isle Royal study on wolf-moose interaction. If thats not balance I don’t know what is. Also i’m not bying all this stupid stuff about wolves ruining a ranchers, inless you cross my palm with a list of at least 10 people you personaly know that now live on the steet becouse wolves ate all there livestock.

  12. redwolf – you obviously are ignorant to this “balance” thing….. Isle Royal is BALANCED….. ha ha ha ha don’t make me laugh. You must have spent too much time on the hate groups Center of Biodiversity’s web site. If you look at the trend of moose on Isle Royale wolves killed off so many moose (too a little over 400) that the wolves died out then the moose population went through the roof (increased to 2400) a bad winter then killed off 2000 of them! The wolves really know how to balance stuff don’t they redwolf! Had hunters been allowed the population could have been held around 600 in line with the habitat a sustainable number. Please don’t use Isle Royale as your example for balance. You embarrass yourself.

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