No one is indifferent to wolves.
Love them or hate them, the charismatic apex predators inspire strong feelings among Westerners.
In recent years, much of the attention has turned to western grey wolves, which are gradually returning to their historic range across the West, following their reintroduction to Wyoming, Montana and Idaho in the mid-1990s.
As that species continues to rebound, wolf advocates are coming to Moab next week to make the case that the animal’s smaller relative – the Mexican grey wolf – should be allowed to roam across the region, including southeastern Utah.
The Flagstaff, Arizona-based group Lobos of the Southwest will be hosting a presentation at the Grand County Public Library on Tuesday, Nov. 10, at 6:30 p.m. to inspire “packtivists” of local residents who support recovery efforts.
“Our goal is to get the word out to these folks where we know there is support for the reintroduction of Mexican grey wolves, and to mobilize people,” Lobos of the Southwest Coordinator Roxane George said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reintroduced Mexican grey wolves to portions of eastern Arizona and western New Mexico south of Interstate 40 in the mid-1990s. Critics of those efforts contend that the species’ range is extremely limited, but George said the animals once roamed across much of the Southwest, and beyond.
“They’ve found genetic evidence of Mexican grey wolves as far away as Nebraska,” she said.
Unlike their well-traveled relatives to the north, though, Mexican grey wolves struggled to bounce back until recently, and they’re not likely to show up along the Platte River any time soon.
While scientists initially predicted that populations would progressively climb to more than 100 animals by 2006, their projections didn’t come to pass until years later.
George said that reintroduction efforts stalled because officials were under political pressure to keep the wolves in check – an unusual development for an animal that is protected under the Endangered Species Act. According to George, entire breeding populations were removed from the wild during one five-year period, and by 2009, just 42 individuals remained south of Interstate 40.
At the same time that wild populations lost much of their genetic diversity due to inbreeding, George said that captive breeding programs never really got off the ground.
“They really had a genetic bottleneck to get through, because it’s such a small population,” she said.
A federal judge ultimately intervened in the recovery plan, and George said that wolf populations in Arizona and New Mexico are now on upward trajectory.
Lobos of the Southwest volunteer Bob Brister noted that Fish and Wildlife Service biologists determined that the species can only survive over the long term if its numbers grow to at least 750 animals. He’d like to see one of three proposed core populations expand into southeastern Utah, although he acknowledges that perceptions about the species could stand in the way of recovery efforts.
“If it were just about wolves and biology, it would be really simple,” he said. “But it’s about everything but that … It’s just so politicized. It’s way beyond the biological question.”
George said that many opponents of reintroduction are concerned in part about the wolves’ impacts on the livestock industry, although she believes those impacts are “heavily exaggerated.”
According to George, livestock are far more susceptible to respiratory and digestive problems, extreme weather events, difficulties giving birth, and predation by bears, mountain lions and bobcats. In the two decades since Mexican grey wolves returned to eastern Arizona and western New Mexico, just over 200 livestock deaths have been attributed to the species, she said.
During that time, Defenders of Wildlife and others have stepped forward to compensate ranchers for any losses they incur due to wolf predation. Supporters of reintroduction are also providing jobs for ranchers and their families, George said, and perhaps as a result of those efforts, she believes that attitudes toward the animals are evolving.
“We are starting to see changes, particularly in New Mexico, where Defenders of Wildlife was the group that worked with the ranchers to make sure they get the help they need,” she said.
Speaking of changes, scientists have documented changes to Yellowstone National Park’s ecosystem, where wolves increasingly keep deer, elk and other browsers from gnawing away at quaking aspens, willows and other trees in riparian areas.
As trees gradually reappeared, Brister noted that beavers returned to the region’s streams, and insect life began to buzz around the dams they created, which, in turn, lured more and more songbirds to the area. At the same time, he said, pronghorn antelope populations rebounded because wolves kept coyotes on the move.
“That’s the top-down influence of apex predators on the species they prey upon,” Brister said. “There’s a cascade or domino effect on the species that the wolves hunt.”
George reiterates that wolves are an integral part of healthy ecosystems.
“I think that’s the part that a lot of people miss with this issue,” she said. “We’re not just talking about a charismatic animal that people would like to hear in the wild.”
Moab resident Wayne Hoskisson knows all about the well-documented role that wolves have played in restoring Yellowstone’s ecosystem, which was one reason why he visited the park this past summer.
Although he never saw any wolves from the park’s famed Lamar Valley packs, it wasn’t for a lack of trying.
Hoskisson said he would love to see Mexican grey wolves around Moab, although he doubts that they would establish a permanent presence in the area.
“It’s not likely that they would be transplanting them, but they should permit them to wander through here,” he said.
Lobos of the Southwest plans Nov. 10 presentation at library
“Our goal is to get the word out to these folks where we know there is support for the reintroduction of Mexican grey wolves, and to mobilize people.”
When: Tuesday, Nov. 10, at 6:30 p.m.
Where: Grand County Public Library, 257 E. Center St.
For more information, go to www.mexicanwolves.org.