After a Killing: Next Steps for America’s Most Endangered Mammal

The latest Mexican gray wolf to be released is shot in New Mexico, leaving two pups.
Only 70 Mexican gray wolves remain in the wild, making them one of the most endangered animals. (Photo: Joel Sartore)
Aug 2, 2013· 2 MIN READ
has an ASME Award, edits for Backpacker Magazine and writes for Outside, Skiing, and more.

The endangered Mexican gray wolf released into the wilds of New Mexico last May barely had time to get to know her new surroundings. In a July press release, both federal and state wildlife officials confirmed that the wolf had been shot.

Authorities released no other details, and said the investigation was ongoing. But according to the Alamagordo News, the wolf, dubbed F1108, was one of four captive animals that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) had hand-picked for release this spring and that TakePart had reported on in May. Their hope, the department reported, was to bolster the wild Mexican wolf population, which today numbers in the mere mid-70s. The wolves were to be released in pairs—one in the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico and one in southeastern Arizona.

But according to the USFWS, the agency decided not to release the Arizona pair, when they discovered that the female, thought to be pregnant, wasn’t. Instead, they loosed only the one pair into New Mexico. According to the Alamagordo News, the female wolf released in New Mexico gave birth to two pups. Yet just days after they were discovered, their father was seen roaming outside of the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area, a four-million-acre range in Apache-Sitgreaves and Gila National Forests. Because the male had abandoned the female, he was returned to captivity in hopes he could be paired with another mate in the future. After his capture, she began roaming, which is when she was shot.

The story is tragic for many reasons. But according to Eva Sargent, Director of Southwest Programs at the Defenders of Wildlife, the death of wolf F1108 overshadows what may be an even bigger problem with Mexican grey wolves.

In an interview with TakePart, Sargent says that the USFWS is moving too slowly to save the Mexican wolf. She says that Mexican wolves are in poor shape genetically because of a brush with extinction that left just seven wolves—back in the 1980s—to save the subspecies. To overcome this genetic bottleneck, the wolves needed to get out of the captive breeding centers that saved them and rapidly expand their population in the wild to express every bit of genetic diversity possible. In other words, by quickly breeding and having many generations in the wild (more wolves than could fit in captivity), many more combinations of genes would actually be “tried out” in living wolves. But for years, very few if any wolves were released, and the population was kept small. Even now, there are just 75 known Mexican wolves in the Blue Range Recovery Area, a number far too small to keep the rarest wolf safe from extinction, says Sargent.

Sargent says that the only way to improve the situation now is to release many more wolves, and to establish additional populations. “And doing this right,” she says, “means using the best available science and following a recovery plan.”

Right now, says Sargent, the USFWS has “a small leaky ark” in terms of Mexican wolf recovery. “But they know how to fix it. If there’s one thing the Mexican wolves have on their side, it’s good objective scientists who are figuring out how to save them.” She adds that the Service needs to work fast to release more wolves, finish the recovery plan, and establish additional populations. “When we give wolves our best efforts, they return the favor by making our landscapes healthier and more productive. That’s what F1108 would’ve done, and we need many more mother wolves with pups to carry on after her.”