The future of two rare kinds of wolves hangs in the balance this month.
The reason? The United States Fish and Wildlife Service has issued a final call for public comment about the Mexican gray wolf and the red wolf—each subspecies has fewer than 100 animals left in the wild—and those opinions could help determine if the wolves will be allowed to expand their existing habitats, or even remain free at all.
Mexican gray and red wolves have a lot in common. Perceived as threats to livestock, they have been hunted to near extinction by ranchers and farmers in the past century. During the 1970s, the last few individuals of each species were rounded up and placed in captive breeding programs. Years later, some of the wolves were released into experimental wild populations—the Mexican wolves in Arizona and New Mexico and the red wolves in North Carolina. Today, even though captive breeding efforts continue and reproduction has begun in the wild, the two wolves remain exceptionally rare. Only 83 Mexican wolves live in the wild, and the red wolf number is estimated at between 90 and 110.
Both species are termed "experimental, non-essential" populations under the Endangered Species Act. They’re stuck with the label of “non-essential” because both subspecies continue to survive in captivity. Thus, the reintroduced populations are not considered "essential" to their long-term survival, meaning the wolves can be removed from the wild at any time. The designation also affords the animals fewer protections from humans who might accidentally kill them or federal agencies that want to conduct activities in their habitats.
Drew Kerr, carnivore advocate for WildEarth Guardians, a nonprofit conservation group, said the designation deprives the wolves of the most important protections enjoyed by other animals protected under the Endangered Species Act.
"What we'd like to be able to see the wolves do is vote with their feet," said Kerr. "Rather than impose these artificial boundaries, we'd like the wolves to be able to self-identify suitable habitat and move into it. We also think that would help to reduce and alleviate human-wolf conflict in the reintroduction area."
The FWS did not respond to requests for comment.
The agency is considering how the wolves will be managed in the future. In the case of the red wolf, FWS is asking for public comment on whether to "continue, modify, or end" the reintroduction program. If the agency terminates the reintroduction program, it will likely round up the wild animals and return them to captivity.
For the Mexican gray wolf, proposals on the table range from expanding their habitat to allowing livestock owners or government agencies more discretion to kill "problem" wolves that might threaten livestock.
WildEarth's wildlife program director, Bethany Cotton, praised the work that has been done to bring the wolves back from the brink of extinction.
"In both instances, there was a really impressive initial effort to save these species," she said. "That should be applauded. But these efforts have been hobbled for 20 or 30 years now. This is an amazing thing, and we should be proud of it and continue it and make sure it's sustainable moving forward."