On June 2nd, I interviewed Amy Harwood of Lobos of the Southwest about her organization’s advocacy for the Mexican Gray Wolf, and particularly for its reintroduction into the wild. You can listen to the full interview here.
Amy: My name is Amy Harwood and I’m currently the coordinator for Lobos of the Southwest, which is a joint outreach and education initiative of several different environmental organizations and individuals who live in the southwest US. The idea is to be working collectively to elevate the advocacy of Mexican Gray Wolves in the effort to recover them, and also to elevate the idea that wolves belong here, because of the reality that they were removed so fully from this area. There’s an interest to make sure that, along with our legal tools and angles, and along with political pressure, [we’re] doing a lot of basic outreach and education about wolves in the area, so hopefully by the next generation, it’s more of an accepted thing that wolves exist in the southwest US.
I’ve worked in environmental organizing for a long time and have been spending time in Arizona for a number of years and took on this role almost two years ago now. I’ve been a longtime fan of wolves. Like a lot of advocates, I find myself constantly pulled back to the species because they are so remarkable. Also, politically, it’s a very compelling species to work on for a number of reasons. They have a pretty compelling parallel to a lot of other points in our social evolution as the United States and as the Southwest. You can really see how, when something happens around acceptance or rejection of wolves in the wild, it’s often pretty tied to a lot of other social things that are evolving or happening. So in terms of species and wildlife protection, wolves always bring a very important story…
Kollibri: You use this word, “lobos.” I hadn’t heard this one until I started looking into your group.
Amy: Thank you, yes. So Mexican Wolves are a subspecies of Gray Wolves. And “lobos” is the Spanish word for “wolves” in Mexico. When you use the word, “lobos,” you’re likely referring to Mexican Gray Wolves, the subspecies. So in the southwest United States, people often refer to “lobos” and also are referring more to that subspecies than to wolves in general.
We do try to use the term, “Mexican Gray Wolves,” because it’s important to establish that they are a subspecies of Gray Wolves. Scientifically it’s accurate but there are political reasons why that’s important to establish. But it’s kind of a mouthful to have three words like that so a lot of times we use the nickname, “lobos.”
Basically extinct in the wild
Kollibri: So the history of this creature is that it was very widespread in the Southwest at one time. And of course with the entry of Europeans—and, I would presume, primarily ranching—the number of wolves went down because they were hunted.
Amy: …I would say it’s more than even just your basic colonization story or even more than ranching having an impact on the species. It was actually a very explicit policy to remove wolves. There were actually bounty hunters and people who were paid to go out and kill wolves, as opposed to a lot of other species where maybe it was a consequence of [other] activity. With wolves, it really was a very specific effort to kill them off.
With Mexican Gray Wolves, they basically were extinct. They were gone from the landscape. There were a few left in Mexico. The species that is being recovered now is actually originally from a couple pairs of wolves that were removed from the wild down in Mexico and brought up to the United States to be bred. The genetics start there for most wolves that are in the wild now.
Kollibri: That was a very small number of animals, wasn’t it? I think I read that… they brought up four males and one female from Mexico to start this program?
Amy: Yes. They started with seven and lost a couple and then, yes, it was a very small number. A lot of the times, that can work; there were wolves in captivity, like in zoos, so there was the potential to be mixing some of these genetics as time went on, and there was actually a plan for that smaller group to be the foundation, the beginning, and to grow out from there. Unfortunately, the first wolves were released in 1998, and the plan was to continue releasing wolves with other genetic material, and that didn’t happen. In fact, it happened so slowly that it started to become a pretty serious problem. There was a real moment in the recovery effort, about ten or fifteen years ago, where it seemed pretty touch and go. There were some wolves released in 2006 and then they started doing a program called “cross-fostering.”
So there have been efforts to bring wolves out but they haven’t actually released a well-bonded pair with pups, which is the ideal way you want to release wolves from captivity into the wild…
Kollibri: In the wild here, on the US side of the border, the number is less than 120 wolves altogether?
Amy: It’s over 160 now, and that’s a conservative estimate, because they do a population count once a year and they try to collar as many as they can. They find collared ones and if that one is traveling with a pack, they try to count that pack. It’s a good count but it’s not an exact count, so they put that number out as “at least” this number.
To give credit where it’s due, it’s grown in the last three years more than in the past. That population number is great. It’s something to celebrate. It takes a lot of coordination to pull this off. In that sense, they are doing a great service. We just keep reminding people that, even with that good news, it’s not actually fixing the genetics to have that population growing without also the genetic kinship diversifying as well.
Amy: Since 2006, the only wolves that have been released have been puppies in this process called “cross-fostering” which kind of comes out of a practice in farming and husbandry, where you take the babies and basically move them into a different mother’s [den] to be able to keep the genetics healthy for the species. It’s not one that’s commonly used in wildlife recovery but it works, more or less, with wolves because of the denning process that happens. So basically, you have wolves born into captivity and the timing has to be just right that they are brought by plane—because most of these facilities are pretty far away, they’re spread all over the country—they’re flown into an area where they know that there’s an active den. Then, oftentimes there’s someone from the facility that comes with the pups, they meet up with the agency scientists and they go out and place those pups into those dens. There’s usually a process to make sure that all the puppies smell the same and they use certain techniques, while the mother is away from the den. The idea is that when the mother returns, she’s just sorta like, “Oh, I forgot I had that one too!” and then just starts raising them all up as her own pups. Then that pup from captivity becomes part of the pack but with much more diverse genetic material that will hopefully infiltrate into that pack.
Wolves have about a fifty percent mortality rate when they’re born. On top of that, obviously there’s a lot can go wrong in the process of bringing the pups out. It’s a pretty difficult thing to pull off and we’ve had some pretty big concerns that the agency is able to count these puppies. I think they did 22 last year and about 20 this year and they’re able to count that. It sounds like a lot of new wolves out in the landscape. The problem is a lot of them die, or there’s problems in the process of them growing up to be juveniles. We’re cautious to be critical because it’s such an impressive feat for the breeding facilities to be even able to pull that off, and it’s a good idea to have that, and releasing adult pairs that could be breeding in the wild. But we have concerns that they’re leaning on that too much because it’s more socially palatable than releasing some wolves that have been hanging out in captivity and maybe have an appetite for the human luxuries…
We just got through the cross-fostering season and we’re all hoping those puppies do well in their new families.
Agency challenges and electoral hope
Kollibri: …What are other things that are done to try to help the population recover?
Amy: Well right now, honestly, the agency is doing a whole lot of interrupting the possibility of them recovering. So the US Fish & Wildlife Service, a federal agency, is responsible for the recovery of Mexican Gray Wolves. They’re the agency that’s responsible for overseeing the response to the Endangered Species Act. So when a species gets listed, that’s the agency that makes sure that species is recovered.
Mexican Gray Wolves are a little special because when an animal has gone into extinction, they use this thing called the “10(j) Rule” which basically says the agency has to have a little more flexibility when they’re dealing with bringing an extinct species back, or they’re bringing a species back to the wild from captivity, because it’s a different process than just supporting the population that’s already out there.
So sometimes that can be good flexibility but right now it feels like that’s flexibility that is not necessarily in the best interest of the future of Mexican Gray Wolf recovery. So one of the things that we’re really advocating for is, right now, when they cross the I-40 boundary (which is the highway in northern Arizona and New Mexico, which goes east-west across those states), when it crosses north of there, they quickly remove the wolf from the wild they either put it back in captivity or move it back south. But that boundary is a very false boundary. It’s a political boundary. It’s basically just one that they encourage to make sure that wolves aren’t seen as just spreading out all over the place.
So we’re really advocating that that northern boundary is not honored the way it’s been used, in such an unscientific way.
One of the reasons we’re focused on that boundary, as opposed to others, is because the southern boundary is the US-Mexican border wall. Unfortunately, that feels politically more difficult to remove right now than raising this northern boundary up. Also, from a climate change perspective, it makes more sense to make sure these animals can move north…
The state of Colorado has a ballot initiative to begin a wolf recovery program. It looks very likely that it may do well in November, which is really exciting, because what that would mean is that you would have Colorado looking for opportunities in the state to release populations of wolves. That may be a very good thing for Mexican Gray Wolves, if you had another area—say in southwestern Colorado—where there were wolves being released, whether they were Mexican Gray Wolves or Northern Gray Wolves, either way that helps… making a continuous wolf presence where the genetics are moving throughout those species…
What it does is basically open up an area to the north that feels socially tolerant to wolves being introduced. So that would help a lot to have that area expanded, that we could be seeing more wolves introduced.
What’s driving us right now, in terms of the groups that I work with, is making sure that anything we do is in service of the genetics changing. Because right now, the species is basically in free fall, genetically, even though the population is growing, which is great. But genetically, it’s doing worse. Anything that we’re advocating for is ultimately in service of making sure that the genetics of the species gets better.
Complexities of advocacy
Kollibri: …You’ve got different factors that you have to work here that make things complicated. One one hand, you’ve got the science of it; here’s the ecology of it, and the needs from that point of view. Then you’ve got the politics and then you’ve got the cultural elements… It seems like, wow, you’ve got to be juggling here when you’re dealing with this issue?
Amy: Yes. It’s always a little frustrating in some way, because we did some polling last year in Arizona and New Mexico, and even in the rural areas, the majority of people support wolf recovery and wolf introduction. Even in these conservative pockets, you still have majority support… But the cowboy myth still has a lot of presence around here, and I think there’s a lot of pride with that social association, that cultural association. Frankly, that’s a big block for wolf recovery. When you have Mexican Gray Wolves mostly on public land and then you’re using that public land for grazing leases as well, and those are cattle that are spread out over a large area and not often being tended—they might have a range rider coming by as they can—but not in an area where they’re being watched, it’s much harder to keep wolves from going for that easy food.
Wolves generally do hunt, and they go out and they’re looking for Elk, they’re looking to chase things down. But if there’s a bunch of cows just sitting there, they’re probably going to go for those too. So you have a real conflict interest in some of that public land area, which is where they’re really focusing on Mexican Gray Wolf recovery…
For the most part, right now, they’re focused on National Forest land—the Gila, the Apache-Seagraves National Forests—but the reality is that they’re kind of on top of some of those grazing allotments and they really need to move beyond there, so we’re looking for more corridors they could expand into.
Kollibri: I know that there’s a situation where ranchers can get compensated for losses from wolves… [so] the predation from wolves could be exaggerated.
Amy: There’s a couple things going on there. There are several funds that are available for ranchers to get compensated. It’s a pretty politically palatable thing to propose if you’re a representative in the Southwest and you care about wolves but you don’t want to do anything too controversial… It appeases everybody at once… I do think it’s a good thing to keep getting funding towards, but there is a point, where you don’t want to have that become it’s own political tool against the wolves. It’s intended to be a political tool for the wolves…
2020: A rough year for the Wolf
Kollibri: I did see that some people consider this to be a rough year so far with the number of wolves who have been found dead.
Amy: Yeah. I think there’s been more wolves killed in the last year than has happened in—I think I heard somebody say—the whole recovery process. It’s definitely been one of the highest years for sure.
That’s a mix of agency capturing and killing wolves. When they capture them, there’s this reality that they’re very likely to not survive that capturing. It’s extremely traumatic for wolves to be removed from their pack and they often just don’t survive that removal. Even more than other animals, they’re known to really not do well in that process. Ranchers trapping wolves when they find them has also been an issue. There has been a couple of private trappings that are under investigation. Trapping is not legal in Arizona, but it is legal in New Mexico.
Kollibri: Even thought the species is endangered, it’s legal to trap it under certain circumstances.
Amy: Yes, if they’re threatening you. You’re not supposed to shoot them if they’re threatening anything other than a human. But a lot of people claim, when they’ve shot wolves, that they thought it was a coyote. So we do a lot of outreach around what is the difference between a coyote and a wolf, and how can you easily tell the difference. I get it. I mean, they’re large dog-looking animals. But honestly, every time I look at images of the two in the wild, next to each other—I don’t know. A wolf is pretty distinguishable, I think. And, many of the wolves who are wild in this area have collars on. And they’re often traveling together, so it’s rare that you would see a dispersed wolf. So it’s one of those things, it feels hard to believe when that happens…
That presence of anti-wolf sentiment is very strong. Even when we talk to people, and do polling, and hear overwhelming excitement about wolves, [when] people hear that wolves are interrupting somebody’s livelihood, and particularly when they hear they’re interrupting the livelihood of an industry that’s been here for so long, like the livestock producers, there quickly is a shift of empathy. Which I understand, but I think it’s a real sharp turn.
Several of the groups that we work with have coexistence programs where they’re supporting livestock producers to go out and get more range riders. There’s lots of non-lethal ways that people can be keeping wolves away from cattle with different techniques that have been tested around the country and used here. They’re often no effective forever because these wolves are pretty smart, but they are effective. There are groups—Defenders of Wildlife is one of them—that do a lot of effort to do some more coexistence. I think that’s a good way to remind people that you don’t have to have one thing or another. It would be great that wolves could kind of trump cattle in some of these places, but I think what really needs to happen is there needs to be both the advocacy for the wolves to be high priority and also there needs to be efforts to support coexistence strategies. Because we’re not going to get rid of the cattle, at least not in the short term. The situation is so precarious with wolf recovery that we kind of have to have all angles covered at this point.
We do work a lot with attorneys and right now there’s an opportunity to really have an influence on the future of of Mexican Gray Wolves. Under that 10(j) Rule that I mentioned before, the agency has to have a plan for how to manage the wolves…. They put out a rule which had a list of all the management protocol and policies in 2015 and it was pretty bad. It was not an effective response so groups got together and they filed a lawsuit and we got a ruling back from the district court saying that in fact the Fish & Wildlife Service had rejected the science and had done a really bad job of what scientists were saying about lobo recovery, and told the agency they had to go back and redo that rule.
How to help!
Amy: So right now, we have an opportunity to influence that process. They have a NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process that they’re going through that says that the agency has to turn back to the public and ask for input… You can find out how to submit comments at mexicanwolves.org.
That’s just the first step. Hopefully we’re going to have public meetings over the next year as they move forward with reviewing that initial input and present a new rule and a new set of policies. Then we’ll have another opportunity to comment on those. So we’re really encouraging people to get involved now because this is a really good opportunity to have an impact on the management of the wolves.
Kollibri: What are other ways that people can help out?
Amy: …We also have “packtivists” throughout the Southwest. We have a packtivist group in Phoenix, we have one in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Flagstaff, Tucson. We have several groups and those groups do an amazing job getting out into communities, and going to events, and tabling. I work with them to come up with the materials they want. It’s a really great way to locally respond to the different ways that people are excited and interested in lobo recovery. They can get in touch with me at amy (AT) mexicanwolves.org
The other plug I would put in is the pup-naming contest. We work with a bunch of different schools around the country, but particularly in the Southwest, to use curriculum that we’ve put together, in the classroom. We have different grade levels for the contest, so if you’re teaching younger kids, we have stuff for them, all the way up to eighth grade. We’ve found this is a great way to get kids involved, and also their parents. About 25-30 wolves a year get a collar, and rather than referring to them by a number, we refer to them by the name that the kids give them. We try to do some local media around the naming of the pups, and basically elevate that moment of excitement, that this is another animal that the public can connect to, and follow their story.
We’re always looking for volunteers to go into the schools and present in the classrooms. A lot of teachers take us up on that offer to send in a volunteer and give a presentation on wolves. Every time I’ve done it, there’s always one one kid who’s so into wolves and they can’t believe that there’s people who get to go around and talk about wolves all the time. That;s like my absolute favorite moment with this work: getting to see these kids light up… We’ve just got to focus on these guys, and nurture this excitement, because they have normalized that wolves are here. They’re very accepting. That’s a hopeful place and a fun way to get involved.
The full interview is episode 17 of my podcast, “Voices for Nature & Peace,” which you can listen to here.