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Navigating the uncertain future of Mexican gray wolves in the Southwest

Scientists measure a sedated wolf pup's teeth and record their findings.
Bryce Dix
Scientists measure a sedated wolf pup's teeth and record their findings.

The federal government is keeping a watchful eye on the Mexican gray wolf population as initiatives continue to reintroduce them into the American Southwest.

But, these slowly increasing numbers have reignited a centuries-old debate between the agricultural industry, environmentalists, and local, and federal governments about the true role wolves have in the wild.

On a pleasantly warm, late January day in Southern New Mexico’s Apache Creek, a slew of pickup trucks line up neatly just off a dirt road.

One has big letters on its side that read: New Mexico Game and Fish. Another belongs to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The skies are a clear brilliant blue and sun glints off the snowy ground.

Then, the sound of a helicopter.

While loose snow blows furiously across the makeshift camp, the door of the helicopter opens and a figure emerges holding a limp, sedated pup.

We’re here for the annual Mexican gray wolf count.

Immediately, scientists weigh the pup and dress a gnarly neck wound from a past bite, apparently, from another wolf. They then follow that with a round of vaccines and a new, bright yellow tracking collar.

Dr. Susan Dicks is a veterinarian with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, which runs the Mexican gray wolf recovery program.

“I'm here to ensure that the wolf is safe and that humans are safe during the processing,” Dicks said.

For centuries wolves were forces of fear and evil in many mythology and fairy tales, often leading to their deaths in the real world.

In the relentless drive to settle the American West, wolves fared no better. They were the antithesis to Manifest Destiny and the so-called taming of the wilderness.

Mexican gray wolves once numbered in the thousands, but were almost wiped out of the American Southwest by the mid 1970s.

But federal officials began reintroducing the wolves in 1998 and in 2017, federal officials put a plan in place to further protect the animal from humans by increasing education, restrictions on wolf movement, and law enforcement.

The ultimate goal is 320 wolves and Dicks said she’s confident that will be met this year.

“I think the wolves on the landscape know what to do and how to do it,” Dicks said. “I think there are a lot of human dimensions that are the most challenging aspects.”

Some of those challenging aspects she’s talking about have to do with the agricultural industry. Specifically, ranchers with livestock.

Megan Richardson owns a ranch in Beaverhead, New Mexico. She said she sees wolves on a daily basis.

“It’s not a good feeling to pull up in a pasture and see 10 dead yearlings. Not a good feeling to not feel like you can’t protect your private property, your kids, your dog without repercussion of the federal government. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone!”

Her family’s ranch is made up of private deeded land, but also state and forest land they pay a significant amount of money annually to use.

The location is at the core of the “Mexican wolf experimental population area,” ranging from southern and central Arizona to New Mexico. That means extra protections are in place there –– such as outlawing wolf killings unless the animals are actually caught the act of destroying livestock and only if the kill is on private land.

“And that’s one thing that a lot of people, in general, do not understand how New Mexico is put together,” Richardson said. “It is a lot of checkerboard. A lot of pieces of state, forest, BLM, private, all around.” 

Ranchers who suffer losses from wolf predation can apply for compensation from the federal government for things like damaged fencing, lost heads of cattle, and even providing modern day cowboys to help defend livestock.

However, Richardson dismisses these potential solutions and claims it’s nearly impossible to value a calf that doesn’t live to give birth to many others.

She would prefer to see no wolves, but advocates say we need more of them across more of the West.

“It’s going to take more wolves and they’re going to have to be distributed across much larger areas,” said Bryan Bird, the Southwest program director for Defenders of Wildlife.

Bird said his vision for recovery is to have gray wolves from Canada all the way to Mexico connect and interbreed to diversify the gene pool.

Predators like the wolf help disperse rich nutrients and seeds through various means. And they control the abundance and diversity of their prey. Bird points out eliminating them or restricting where they can be could mean losing their “full ecological impact.”

Defenders of Wildlife has been working on “conflict reduction” techniques for years through livestock protection dogs and wrapping string with red flags around cow herds to ward off predators. Though, Bird said the issue is bigger than just reaching a compromise.

“Ultimately, this gets back to cultural differences,” Bird said. “Old cultural differences about: Who controls western lands?”

Back in Southern New Mexico, as one of the sedated wolves starts to wake up, it’s clear the future is uncertain for the lobos. Will they continue to be branded as intruders and their movements restricted? Or will humans and wolves find a way to co-exist?

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly attributed Bryan Bird saying wolves disperse seeds. Furthermore, Defenders of Wildlife does not advocate for subsidies for private agricultural business and this version corrects the story to reflect that one of the conflict reduction methods they use is to attach red flags to strings that encircle a herd or pasture.

Bryce Dix is our local host for NPR's Morning Edition.
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