25 years later, we've only sort of learned to live with Mexican wolves

There are now at least 241 Mexican wolves in the Southwest, a remarkable moment worth lauding.

Especially given that 25 years ago, there was none.

That’s a result of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service efforts since then to reintroduce the lobos into the wilds of the United States.

Yet it’s also a call for the celebration to be measured. There remains a great deal of work necessary to truly recover lobos.

Too many wolves are still illegally killed

Numerous lobos did not survive to be counted this year.

Among them are members of the Seco Pack. The pack, the first wild wolves released from the Ladder Ranch in New Mexico, was blamed for livestock losses in a conflict-ridden grazing allotment in the Gila National Forest in 2021.

In 2022, fear-stoking New Mexico Rep. Yvette Herrell called for the entire pack to be killed, which fortunately, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined to do.

The pack survived the Black Fire and raised another litter of pups.

But in October, the breeding male named Grenville (collar #1693) was found dead. And just last month the last two collared wolves in the pack, Faith (#1728) and Nantl’ah Lightfoot (#2689) were found dead.

These wolves were almost certainly illegally killed.

And unlawful killings are still far too common.

Fostering alone won't fix the genetic crisis

A Mexican gray wolf leaves cover at the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, Socorro County, N.M.
A Mexican gray wolf leaves cover at the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, Socorro County, N.M.

Law enforcement has failed to protect lobos, and further failed to prosecute wolf killers because of the “McKittrick policy,” a discretionary Department of Justice policy that forgives confusing (supposedly) wolves with coyotes.

It’s a travesty of justice.

The loss of the Seco Pack wolves highlights not only this unjust killing, but another major failure of the recovery program: the genetic diversity of wild Mexican wolves – descended from just seven founders – continues to erode.

Grenville was born in captivity at the Endangered Wolf Center in St. Louis. The facility there has taken immaculate care to breed wolves and protect valuable genetics to inject into the wild population through cross-fostering (taking captive-born pups and placing them in wild wolf dens).

We owe a debt of gratitude to facilities like this and the staff that run them.

In court:Lobo recovery plan challenged by conservation groups

The Fish and Wildlife Service, however, has erred in relying on cross-fostering alone to alleviate the genetic crisis; pups placed in wild dens have underwhelming survival rates.

Even if they do survive, there is no guarantee that they will go on to breed. Still, the service refuses to release families of wolves, largely in deference to New Mexico and Arizona state wildlife agencies.

This political barrier impedes genetic rescue.

Mexican wolves need more suitable habitat

Finally, Mexican wolves are still not allowed to reestablish throughout suitable habitat in the Southwest.

When a wolf crosses north of Interstate 40, like the recent wandering wolf, Asha, they are captured and taken to the Gila Bioregion or into captivity.

To the south, it is nearly impossible for a lobo to pass through Trump’s divisive border wall, which limits connectivity with the recovering wolf population in Mexico. This restricts the genetic interchange that would occur naturally through dispersal.

We celebrate the 241 lobos that now roam in the U.S. – it is a tremendous achievement. But it is more a testament to their resilience than to our ability to coexist.

Livestock owners still vilify wolves.

Law enforcement agencies appear more inclined to prosecute deer poachers than wolf killers.

And unscientific policies hinder the health, and distribution of our small Mexican wolf population.

Let’s celebrate. But let’s also remain committed to recovering the iconic lobo.

Chris Smith is the Southwest wildlife advocate for WildEarth Guardians, which works to ensure that imperiled species and biodiversity are protected and restored throughout the American Southwest. Reach him at csmith@wildearthguardians.org.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Mexican wolves survive because of their resilience, not our policies