Billionaire’s Bid to Save Rare Wolves Ends Up on the Brink of Extinction

In New Mexico, state game commissioners unhappy with federal wildlife policies have taken aim at a closer target: a conservation program owned by Ted Turner.

Mexican gray wolves. (Photo: Joel Sartore/Getty Images)

May 22, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

Supporters of the endangered Mexican gray wolf in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on Tuesday demanded that state commissioners reverse their recent decision to close down a wolf recovery program.

The program, which has operated for 17 years at a New Mexico ranch owned by billionaire media mogul Ted Turner, has successfully released around 100 of the nearly extinct wolves back into the wild. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has called Ladder Ranch and two other prerelease facilities “integral” to Mexican wolf recovery efforts.

But now Ladder Ranch’s part in Mexican gray wolf recovery is in danger of disappearing, and its supporters charge that the reason is opposition to any federal policy that seeks the recovery of wolves in the wild.

A Controversial Vote

On May 7, New Mexico’s game and fish commissioners, all appointees of Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, withdrew state support for Mexican gray wolf recovery work at Turner’s Ladder Ranch.

For nearly two decades, the New Mexico game and fish commissioner routinely renewed Ladder Ranch’s permit. But this year, the commission raised new objections to the federal government’s handling of the wolf’s recovery.

“Our biggest issue is that there is no recovery plan in place,” said Alexa Sandoval, state game and fish director, during the May 7 meeting. “We don’t know what the end game is for the Mexican wolf population. And so at this point, the department is not in support of the Mexican Wolf Program.”

Michael Robinson, a wildlife conservation activist with the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, believes the commissioners are more motivated by a “vendetta” against the wolf species than the lack of a federal recovery plan.

“This group is appointed by Gov. Martinez, who has put representatives from the Cattle Growers Association—whose primary goal is the eradication of predators—and representatives from Big Game Forever, in favor of removing all wolves from the wild,” Robinson said. Since federal wildlife policies aim “They’re trying to force policy change by depriving managers of the infrastructure they need to manage the wolves.”

The commission has not responded to requests for comment on its decision.

In an editorial, the Albuquerque Journal called the commission’s decision “petty” and “unproductive,” noting that it came despite enthusiastic public support of the Ladder Ranch wolf recovery program. “Turner should be allowed to use his property as he wishes in cooperation with the federal government, and the commission shouldn’t flex its self-granted power to punish a private landowner to make a statement,” the paper said.

The 156,000-acre ranch, set in pine forests in the foothills of New Mexico’s Gila Mountains, provides critical habitat and management for endangered animals such as the black-footed ferret, the bolson tortoise, and the Mexican gray wolf.

A Mexican wolf at Ladder Ranch. (Photo: TESF)

About a half acre of the ranch is reserved for five special pens, where wolves about to be released into the wild are placed. In this “prerelease captive facility,” wolves encounter minimal human contact, and the animals are fed sparingly to acclimate them to life outside captive breeding programs.

“We’re just a very small component of a ship,” said Mike Phillips, executive director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund, who has worked in wolf recovery for 35 years. “A ship that the commission feels doesn’t have a rudder, so they’ve decided to oppose the ship’s components too.”

Dozens of different organizations have written to the governor in support of Ladder Ranch’s wolf recovery program, said Robinson, but their requests to reverse the commission’s decision have gone unacknowledged so far.

Back From the Brink

Long hunted to prevent wolf kills of cattle and elk, Mexican gray wolves had almost vanished by the mid-1950s. Once numbering in the thousands in their historical range of the southwestern U.S. and Mexico, the population was down to just seven animals by the time the species was given federal endangered species protection in 1976.

The federal government rounded up the last seven wild wolves to begin a captive breeding program, which has increased the Mexican gray wolf's numbers to 250 in captivity among some 55 facilities, including zoos, wildlife centers, and the three special “prerelease” centers that include Ladder Ranch.

Since 1998, when 11 Mexican gray wolves were released in Arizona and New Mexico, the population in the wild has grown to 109.

Still, nearly 40 years after gaining federal protections, the Mexican gray wolf has yet to get a full recovery plan. Federal wildlife officials have set a management “rule,” adjusted in January of this year, that increases the species’ roaming area about 10 times from its 1998 level and sets a goal of 300 to 325 wolves in the region.

But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service has never established a target population that would trigger the end of federal endangered species status, which provided an opening for unsympathetic game commissioners when Ladder Ranch’s permit came due for renewal.

“The million-dollar question is, how many wolves are enough?” asked Commissioner Thomas Salopek at the hearing. “One hundred? Three hundred? Is it going to be 500 or 1,000? I can’t go any further if we don’t have a known number.”

Sherry Barrett, Mexican wolf recovery coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service, said that the agency is developing a formal recovery plan but that no timetable has been set for finishing it.

A Cloudy Future

Phillips said the future for Mexican gray wolves would be unclear even if Ladder Ranch wasn’t being forced to shut down its program.

The 18 or so free-roaming wolf packs in Arizona and New Mexico are slowly reproducing and reestablishing the species’ numbers. Many of the wolves in the wild today were born in the wild, not captivity.

But every Mexican gray wolf alive today is descended from a severe genetic bottleneck formed when the species was down to seven individuals—a “genetic disaster,” as Phillips sees it. So pups bred in captivity for release into the wild are crucial to restoring Mexican gray wolves, and any curb to those programs puts the whole species at risk.

“The clock is the Mexican wolves’ enemy,” Phillips told the commission before its controversial vote in May. “Every generation that passes is a little less genetically robust then it was before the clock started.”

Why You Should Care: Wild wolves are revered by many as symbols of freedom, nature, and true grit. But the need for healthy populations of Mexican gray and other wolf species goes beyond appreciating their good looks and charisma. As apex predators, wolves sit at the top of the food chain, where they’re crucial to ecosystem health. Wolf predation helps keep the populations of big herbivores such as elk and deer, as well as small animals like mice and rabbits, in balance with the surrounding ecosystem.