Alibi V.25 No.16 • April 21-27, 2016 

Environment

Species Wars: Return of the Wolf

Or not

Wolftown
Illo by Tamara Sutton

According to the US Department of Agriculture’s Jan. 1, 2016 cattle inventory, there are 92 million head of cattle in the United States. Sounds like enough steak to go around, right? Wrong. These cows are being threatened by a vicious predator. If the bleeding heart nature-freaks at the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) get their way, all the cows will be eaten by a miniscule but deadly group of carnivores, and there will be none left for us humans! Say goodbye to your juicy hamburgers and that refreshing glass of milk because 100 inbred wolves are pulling the puppet strings in a deviously Machiavellian plan to eat every single one of those 92 million cows! Forget that God Almighty told us humans that we are masters of the world and can kill off any species we choose; those Mexican gray wolves are in cahoots with Satan. Plus, as their name implies, they are clearly illegal immigrants from Mexico and are obviously stealing the predatory jobs that were created for American citizens like politicians and businessmen.

But wait. You want to know how many cars are in this crazy train before you climb on board, gun and wolf poison in hand? Well, let’s start at the beginning. The Mexican gray wolf is one of five subspecies of the gray wolf in North America. It is the most endangered with about 97 wolves in the wild and 300 living in captivity at facilities spread across the US and Mexico. They are carnivores whose natural prey are wild ungulates (hooved mammals) like deer and elk, as well as smaller animals like rabbits. Per the USFWS, though they sometimes eat cows and sheep (domesticated ungulates), they prefer their natural wild prey. Their native habitat is in the mountain forests, grasslands and shrublands of southern New Mexico, Arizona and Texas, and northern Mexico.

They were common until about 100 years ago when they came into conflict with humans over resources like deer and elk. And since those evil wolfies couldn’t have the deer, well, they were gonna eat your damn cow. They were also more than happy to dress like your grandmother and eat your children that you dress in red and send into the forest alone, because, you know, that’s reality. So naturally, humans decided the solution was to shoot, trap or poison every damn Mexican wolf in the Southwest until there were only seven left. Seven. Then, in 1973 the Endangered Species Act was passed when we realized that maybe exterminating an entire species is not the most brilliant plan. Especially since, moral qualms aside, that species might actually serve a purpose in nature. Crazy, right?

Apparently not: Scientists at Yellowstone National Park have observed some interesting changes since wolves were reintroduced into the national park. Wolves, as a keystone predator, do serve a purpose.

According to Dave Parsons, a carnivore conservation biologist, they drive a healthy ecosystem by limiting ungulates as well as herding them around the habitat. This keeps these herbivores from destroying their own environment by overgrazing and eating all the baby trees that, in turn, other animals need to survive. Squint your eyes, think really hard, and recall The Lion King. Remember the “circle of life?” Unlike mermaids and magical kisses, that was actually real.

So the USFWS was tasked with magically bringing back the Mexican wolves from the brink of extinction with only seven left. As it turns out, it ain’t magic—it’s science! And the science says that the wolves in the wild need the DNA of the captive wolves or else the whole project will crumble due to serious inbreeding, which creates weak animals that die easily.

“Well hold on just a cotton-pickin’ minute,” you say. “Why can’t we just be the top predators? I mean, that’s basically the point of the N.M. Game and Fish Department (NMGF), right? To give hunters permits to hunt those deer and elk so there aren’t too many? Plus I’m sure the NMGF commissioners have the best interests of wildlife in mind, right?” Eh, not really. Their slogan is “Conserving New Mexico’s Wildlife for Future Generations,” but the phrase “to Kill” should be tacked on the end. Of the seven commissioners who in fact hire their own director and “set the department’s overall direction,” six proudly fall in the hunter/rancher category. Only one is primarily in the conservation camp. And this bizarrely pro-hunter commission and its interests in the ranching business seem to be the major obstacle to Mexican wolf reintroduction in New Mexico.

As part of the Mexican wolf recovery program, the USFWS requested permits from the NMGF Commission to release a breeding pair of captive wolves into the wild and to swap out wild pups with captive pups to add some new blood into the aforementioned shallow gene pool. The commission denied the permits, stating that the recovery program's paperwork needed to be revised with a better objective. This is the kind of bureaucratic crap that can take years. Meanwhile wolves are reproducing with their siblings. Ew. In an appeal of the permit denials, the deputy regional director of USFWS said the recovery program had adequate guiding documents to be awarded permits and that "a revised recovery plan is not required ... in any state."

So what's the program to do? The scientists have shown the need for new DNA; the Mexican Wolf/Livestock Coexistance Council has created a system where they pay ranchers to simply tolerate the presence of wolves and pay market value for any animals that die by the fang; the USFWS has all the proper paperwork. The USFWS as a federal agency, generally tries to play nice with states, but if things don't go well, they're within their rights to go over the state's head and continue their federally-mandated work. And that's just what is happening. According to the Santa Fe Reporter, the USFWS secured the right from the Department of Interior to override the commission late last year.

Yet while the USFWS is dispensing with the formalities of getting permits, it is the anti-wolf attitude of local government and businesses that seems to be the real problem. This recovery program has been going on for 34 years, and we only have about 100 slightly inbred wolves living in their natural habitat to show for it. Shouldn't a state department for wildlife be interested in creating a healthy, balanced ecosystem? Shouldn't the commission in charge of our state's wildlife feel some sense of stewardship toward the animals that share this beautiful land? Shouldn't the USFWS and the NMGF walk hand-in-hand towards that bright future of "conserving New Mexico's wildlife?" Nah, this system of hunters and ranchers running the land seems pretty legitimate. I mean, the cows and the money made from hunting permits are much more important than the continuation of an entire species that preserves the health of the environment that we humans also live in.