Recovery Roadblocks: Is the Federal Agency in Charge of Saving the Mexican Wolf Keeping It from Thriving?

By Soltes, John | Earth Island Journal, Summer 2018 | Go to article overview

Recovery Roadblocks: Is the Federal Agency in Charge of Saving the Mexican Wolf Keeping It from Thriving?


Soltes, John, Earth Island Journal


IN OCTOBER 2016--just a few weeks before the Election Day upheaval in the United States, when Trump's border wall rhetoric was at its peak--Mexican biologists released several radio-collared wolves into a forest about 90 miles south of the US border, in Chihuahua state. The release was part of an ongoing transnational Mexican gray wolf recovery effort. It's not clear what happened to the rest of the wolves--whether they stuck close together, whether they all dispersed as this wide-ranging species often tends to do, or whether some died--but what we do know is that at least one of them, a 10-month-old female tagged F1530 by wolf managers and named Sonora by wolf advocates, decided to wander off north into the rugged borderlands terrain, most likely in search of a mate.

The last time her radio collar worked, on Valentine's Day 2017, it placed her 21 miles south of the border. About a month later, on March 19, 2017, an Arizona Game and Fish Department wildlife manager spotted her on a private ranch near the Chiricahua Mountains in southeastern Arizona. A few days later, she was seen on the same ranch again. Ranch employees tried to scare her away, but Sonora wasn't easy to shoo off. Born in a breeding facility in Cananea, Mexico, she had probably lost some of the instinctive fear of humans that wild things rightfully have. And that was her undoing.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) deemed her refusal to retreat "minor problem behavior." Meanwhile, local ranchers reported several livestock deaths in the area, and investigations revealed that at least one of those animals had been killed by a wolf. Since there had been no other wolves sighted in the area at the time, all fingers pointed to Sonora. So on March 26, 2017, six days after she was first spotted in the US, Sonora's all-too-brief life as a free wolf was cut short. She was captured by the Interagency Field Team in charge of Mexican wolf management and relocated to Sevilleta Wolf Management Facility in New Mexico. In November 2017, she was relocated to the Sedgwick County Zoo in Kansas, a captive breeding facility for Mexican wolves. In all likelihood, she will never be set free again.

"We were decisive in our management actions because this wolf was young, alone, genetically important, and not affiliated with another pack," Benjamin Tuggle, Southwest regional director for FWS, said in a statement after the capture. What Tuggle didn't mention was that the ranchers on whose property Sonora had been sighted wouldn't let officials on his land to catch her unless the FWS agreed not to release her again.

This year, Sonora was paired for breeding at the zoo, and the FWS hopes she will produce pups to contribute to recovery efforts for the endangered wolf subspecies.

Other wolf advocates agree that Sonora's genetics are valuable, but they believe she should be released back into the wild so that she can continue to help the struggling wild Mexican gray wolf population recover. "It's a tragedy that she was first of all removed from the wild," says Bryan Bird, Southwest program director for Defenders of Wildlife. It would have been better if she could have reproduced in the wild, he says, "because wolves that are born and raised in the wild know how to be [real] wolves."

Sonora's cross-border journey and eventual capture underscore the many challenges facing the Mexican gray wolf, including its artificially restricted range, genetic bottlenecks, and now, the Trump administration's border wall.

This smallest of gray wolves was listed under the Endangered Species Act more than 40 years ago. But despite its protected status and two decades of captive breeding and rewilding efforts, its numbers in the wild haven't grown enough to be naturally self-sustaning. The Mexican gray still remains one of the rarest and most endangered gray wolf subspecies in the world. But many wildlife conservationists argue that this is only the case because the federal agency charged with its recovery is not allowing it to thrive. …

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