At the beginning of the 20th century, the Mexican gray wolf was essentially extinct. Today, the species is on the incline, with at least 186 wolves in the wild across Arizona and New Mexico.
This species’ population increase is largely due to conservation efforts following the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Brady McGee, a Mexican Wolf Recovery Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said that a recovery plan was made to save this subspecies of the Gray Wolf after it was listed as an endangered species in 1976.
“That recovery plan outlines how we get it back to a place where it is no longer threatened or endangered,” he said.
Back in 1976, there were only seven living Mexican gray wolves in North America. In the years since, the population has grown to at least 186 in the wild in the U.S., 30 to 40 in the wild in Mexico and around 380 in captive facilities throughout the U.S. and Mexico as of 2020, McGee said.
Even though there are significantly more of these wolves in the wild today than there were when conservation efforts began, Mexican gray wolves are still far from being taken off the endangered species list.
The end goal of the recovery plan, according to McGee, is to maintain an average of 325 Mexican gray wolves in the wild for a period of eight consecutive years. Once that happens, the species will no longer be considered endangered.
According to Robyn Moul, an education specialist for the Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center, these wolves were nearly extinct in the late 1800s and early 1900s due to the arrival of the livestock industry in Arizona and New Mexico. To protect their livestock, ranchers would hunt, trap and poison these wolves.
The arrival of livestock also took a lot of the wolves’ habitat and food sources, causing the population to dwindle.
Reintroducing Mexican gray wolves into the wild brings back a lot of these challenges.
“In order to reintroduce an apex predator like a wolf, you need to create a sort of social tolerance,” McGee said. “Otherwise, ranchers and folks are just going to not accept them and the mortalities will be much higher.”
In order to create social tolerance, McGee said that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is trying to both keep wolves in areas where they won’t attack livestock and work with ranchers to manage their livestock away from these areas.
“People are very passionate about wolves, they love them or hate them,” he said. “We’re trying to find that balance and move the biological needle towards recovery in the middle of all of that.”
While the Mexican gray wolf population has been steadily growing since the passing of the Endangered Species Act, the same can’t be said for many other species.
In September, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed that over 20 species be removed from the lists of endangered wildlife and plant species due to extinction.
These extinctions, mostly caused by climate change and human activity, could cause some serious harm to ecosystems.
This is why saving the Mexican gray wolf is so essential. The loss of this species could cause a “trophic cascade,” Moul said. Since the wolf is an apex predator, their extinction would throw Arizona’s ecosystem out of balance.
“Species serve different functions in a food web,” she said. “Too many, not enough or none at all can have catastrophic repercussions on not just one ecosystem, but them all.”
Editor’s Note: Kate Duffy is a student reporter at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications.
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