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From the Editor

Leave the Door Open

Here are some stats on the rewilding of the US Southwest’s Mexican gray wolves – one of the most endangered mammals in North America – that have been rattling around in my mind for the past few days:

  • 1998 – 2002: 110 captive-born wolves released in the wild, 58 removed from the wild to captive facilities;
  • 2003 – 2007: 68 released and 84 removed;
  • 2008 – 2013: 19 released, 17 removed.

This, dear readers, is what rewilding looks like, US Fish and Wildlife (FWS) style. Set them free – but lock ‘em up again if they venture out of their designated free-range area too many times, or, God forbid, attack cattle.

And, by the way, these numbers don’t even include the wolves killed by the feds for being “problem” animals (14 as of 2016), or those hunted by poachers (66 as of 2015). Neither do they include the many wolves that have sickened and died because they were terribly genetically compromised – the entire existing Mexican wolf population is so inbred that that most of them could be siblings.

As John Soltes reveals in “Recovery Roadblocks”, thanks to political pressure from the livestock and sporting industries, the FWS has been keeping such tight control over Mexican grays that the American gray wolf sub-species is barely hanging in there. After 20 years of rewilding, the total wild population of Mexican wolves in the US stands at a measly 114.

There is another, smaller wild population of these wolves in Mexico, also the product of recent reintroduction efforts in that country. Most conservation biologists agree it is vital that the US and Mexican populations be allowed to travel freely across the border to mate and diversify their gene pool. Some wolves from Mexico have already been making that trans-boundary journey, but Trump’s border wall could soon put an end to that.

What struck me as the saddest part of this story was how the FWS has, in recent years, stopped releasing these highly social animals as family groups. Instead, it has been relying on “cross-fostering” – moving very young pups from one litter into a different, similar-age litter with the hope that the receiving pack will raise them as their own. The FWS says this will help improve the genetic health of the wild population, but truth is, the practice is also partly motivated by the immense political resistance to releasing adults.

Learning about Mexican wolf families being broken up in this way at a time when the Trump administration is threatening to split up Central American families who cross the border illegally – sending children to shelters on military bases, parents to prison – it’s impossible to not notice an unsettling pattern in how this nation has taken to treating the inconvenient “other,” whether human or nonhuman.

Surely, when the persecuted, the endangered, the impoverished need its protection to survive, the “Home of the Free” can do better than this? It’s about time we Americans took a long, hard look at ourselves and figured out what kind of nation we want to be – one that opens its doors to the vibrant, albeit messy and complex, diversity that makes life on Earth so wonderful, or one that isolates itself behind impermeable walls and arbitrary boundaries.

Clarification: An earlier version of this letter said that Mexican wolves are the most endangered mammal in North America when in fact they are among one of the most endangered mammals in the continent.

Maureen Nandini Mitra signature graphic


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The figures do not include the number of wolf pups removed from the wild. As the word “cross-fostering” suggests, wolf pups are re-located in both directions: in exchange for releasing wolf pups into the wild, zoos receive wild pups for display and scientific study. The whole scheme seems to be done for the benefit of zoos, not for the wolves. Is it a coincidence that Dan Ashe, who as USFWS director introduced cross-fostering into the wolf program, now heads the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums?

By Marc Bedner on Fri, June 01, 2018 at 11:47 am

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