25 OCT 2012: ANALYSIS
Few creatures in the United States have come as close to extinction as the Mexican wolf, which was wiped out in the U.S. by 1970. Now, scientists and conservationists contend, federal officials are caving into political pressure and failing to implement a legally mandated reintroduction plan.
For a melodrama of persecuted fugitives to rival Les Misérables, look no farther than the Mexican wolf, the subspecies of gray wolf that once populated the U.S. Southwest. Hunted and trapped by ranchers and federal agencies since the late 1800s, now detained by the same agencies in pens called “wolf jail,” few species in North America have come closer to extinction. Fewer still have suffered through attempted recoveries so plagued by reversals and allegations of mismanagement.
Like Jean Valjean (#24601), they are known by their numbers. Extirpated in the U.S. and nearly gone in Mexico by the 1970s, the wolves became the focus of a captive breeding program launched by 1980 with a handful of individuals, some interrelated. In 1998, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service —the lead agency responsible for the wolves’ recovery — reintroduced the first of 11 in the wild. That January, alpha female #174 from the Campbell Blue pack was carried into a snowy stretch of the Blue Range mountains of eastern Arizona and her cage door opened by U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. By August, she was dead, shot with a high-powered rifle by an unknown killer. Her companions were slain, disappeared, or removed by wildlife officials for leaving the recovery area, a violation of conditions of their parole.
Since that time, many scientists and conservationists contend, the Mexican wolf recovery in the wild has been a failure. Even the Fish & Wildlife Service deemed the population “at risk of failure” in its 2010 assessment of the program. The recovery has been shadowed by accusations that U.S. officials have shied away from their obligation under the Endangered Species Act to fully protect Mexican wolves because of vehement opposition from western states. A successful breeding program now maintains several hundred in captivity, but only 58 survive in the wild, a marked contrast to the more than 1,700 gray wolves that have repopulated the northern Rocky Mountains after widely publicized reintroduction efforts.
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