What’s the Hang Up on Releasing Adult Lobos?

Mexican wolf. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

On March 9, a colleague from Endangered Species Coalition and I published this op-ed in the Albuquerque Journal, identifying Arizona and New Mexico as major stumbling blocks to wolf recovery, “[B]ecause both are allowing the Fish and Wildlife Service only to conduct cross-fostering in their states.” We called out the urgency with which the New Mexico Department of Fish and Game must act to release well-bonded adult pairs into the wild this summer as a way of addressing the critical genetic crisis facing the wild wolves.

To our surprise, a former Chairman of the NM State Game Commission Paul Kienzle, wrote a responsive op-ed the same week, stating,

“It is not fair to suggest the State Game Commission is a major stumbling block for wolf recovery when all the tools are there for the Fish and Wildlife Service to utilize to accomplish the goal of recovery. That the Fish and Wildlife Service does not choose to make an application for releases of well-bonded wolf pairs into the wild or cannot adequately support its application via a public process is not the fault of the N.M. State Game Commission.”

Maybe so, but then who is the stumbling block over there in New Mexico? The US Fish and Wildlife Service reportedly has well-bonded pairs and release locations picked out – and if they don’t, we could help them! – so why isn’t the department encouraging the FWS to put in an application and get this project moving? (We note that the Commission and the Department are two separate things, and maybe that’s the issue?)

The 2020 release and translocation plan only calls for cross-fostering releases in Arizona and New Mexico, despite the realities that cross-fostering – if successful – will only improve genetic health slightly in the long-run and doesn’t provide a near-term necessary infusion of new genes into the expanding wild population. As we put it in our op-ed,

“Cross-fostering entails adding captive pups to wild dens and hoping the parent wolves don’t notice. Even when cross-fostering is successful, the low survivorship of puppies and the number of years until they will reach breeding age means that the genetic benefit of these little lobos is years away.”

Sure, there would be some political blowback from the usual suspects (cough * ranchers * cough) and less-informed sportspeople, but if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen. We can’t have wildlife agencies too afraid of politics to allow a species to go extinct on their watch.

The genetics of the wild population are downright troubling, and we can’t wait for wishful thinking and crossed fingers to work their magic.

Greta Anderson is a plant nerd, a desert rat, and a fan of wildness. She is the Deputy Director of Western Watersheds Project.