By Tommy Hough
With only about 40 animals left in the wild at the time this show was recorded, the Mexican gray wolf is one of the most endangered species in North America. And with wolves on and off the Endangered Species List according to political whims, the movement toward state control over wildlife management, and lingering hostility and old world superstitions over wolves and wolf populations, dangerous times continue for this most wild of animals, even as it begins to reclaim areas where it once roamed 100 years ago.
Patrick Valentino is the former executive director and current development director for the California Wolf Center just south of Julian, and he spoke with Treehuggers International about the plight of the Mexican gray wolf and other wolf populations in the west and Great Lakes. Patrick also talked about hopeful opportunities for wolf recovery in an era where they no longer enjoy explicit federal protection – and in which political leaders are reluctant to stand up for these charismatic predator species critical to balanced ecosystems.
The Mexican gray wolf is the rarest, southernmost, and most genetically distinct subspecies of the gray wolf in North America, as well as one of the smallest, measuring just under five feet in length with a height of about 32 inches.
Until the late 1800s, Mexican wolf populations roamed the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts from central Mexico to western Texas, and from southern New Mexico to central Arizona. But by the beginning of the 20th century, with a steep reduction in wolves' natural prey in the wild like deer and elk, along with an increase in cattle production, wolves began to turn to domestic livestock for sustenance.
This didn't sit well with ranchers and other exploitative entrepreneurs eager to make the west into a colossal cattle ranch, leading to significant efforts by government agencies, and individuals, to eradicate the Mexican wolf from the southwest. Sadly, these efforts were quite successful. The Mexican wolf had been eliminated from the wild by 1960, and was declared endangered by the federal government in 1976. It has remained so ever since.
By 1997, conservationists were eager to restore a natural balance to the southwest's wildlands, and for once, they had a friendly ear in the Interior Department, as Secretary Bruce Babbitt authorized the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reintroduce Mexican gray wolves into the Blue Range area of Arizona, including the Apache-Sitgreaves and Gila National Forests of Arizona and New Mexico.
Since then, the Mexican wolf's recovery has been hindered by native hostility and illegal killings. Despite their reintroduction 10 years earlier, the number of Mexican wolves in the wild had dropped to a critical level of 52 animals by 2008. Those numbers continue to drop.
Founded in 1977, the California Wolf Center is home to several gray wolves, including the endangered Mexican gray wolves discussed in this program, and is a participant in the Mexican Wolf Species Survival Plan, which is an ongoing collaboration between the U.S. and Mexico to help Mexican gray wolves recover in the wild. Most of the center's Mexican gray wolves reside in off-exhibit enclosures, which help prepare them for potential release into the wild.
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Photo by Jim Clark, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Tommy Hough is a former San Diego broadcast personality, wilderness and parks advocate, California Democratic Party delegate, and the co-founder and former president of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action. He was the endorsed Democratic candidate for San Diego City Council in District 6 in 2018.