It's been more than six decades since packs of Mexican gray wolves roamed the Colorado Plateau, but a coalition of conservation, wildlife and outdoor groups say it's time to bring the endangered animals back to this part of their historic range.
According to Nicole Corbo, coordinator of the Grand Canyon Wolf Recovery Project, returning wolves to northern Arizona would not only bring balance to the ecosystem but would also address problems with the eight-year-old reintroduction effort in the Gila and Apache national forests.
"It would help the population that is already existing," she said. "They would do better if they could roam over into the Grand Canyon eco-region."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service administers the reintroduction project, with cooperation from Arizona Game and Fish, in the Arizona Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area in southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico. The program started in 1998 with the release of 11 captive-bred Mexican gray wolves. That population had expanded to as many as 55 but Corbo said that has dropped to 33 over the past couple of years. Most of those deaths are human caused.
Under what's known as the 10J rule in the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the population is classified as an experimental, non-essential species, and are managed differently than most species on the endangered list.
"They don't have the same protection as most endangered species, which is why we keep losing numbers," Corbo said. "For one thing, there isn't any other endangered species relegated to one area and not allowed to move beyond a boundary. And there is a lot more leeway for lethal taking of the animal."
For example, ranchers can legally shoot wolves in the act of attacking livestock. Wolves are also tagged with radio collars that enable researchers to link them to instances of livestock predation. Three-time offenders are marked for permanent removal. If efforts to trap them and return them to captivity aren't successful, the problem animals are shot.
Also, the wolves that leave the re-introduction area are captured and relocated.
Corbo said that many animals have died from the stress of repeated handling
"Essentially the problem they're running into is that they are having too many conflicts," she said.
Human pressure has always been the Mexican gray wolves' gravest threat. Like mountain lions, they were targeted for eradication by early settlers and ranchers like Uncle Jim Owens, not only because of their threat to livestock but also because of the competition they represented to hunters.
The last wolf was killed in northern Arizona in 1942. By the mid-1970s only a handful remained in Mexico.
The Arizona-New Mexico recovery effort is one of three in the United States and the only one that relies on captive breeding.
The first project started in the late 1980s in the northern Rocky Mountain/Yellowstone region of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho and drew from healthy populations from Canada.
In the early 1990s, another program was launched in the midwest, drawing from a healthy timber wolf population in Minnesota to return wolves to a wider range that includes Wisconsin and Michigan.
Coalition members believe that by removing the arbitrary boundary to the north of the Blue Range area, wolves would migrate to the less-populated Grand Canyon eco-region 32 million acres spanning from the Mogollon Rim to southern Utah.
"When we look at recovery efforts elsewhere, such as at Yellowstone, we certainly see benefits ecologically and financially revenue from wolf watchers is astounding in that area," Corbo said. "We hope to reap those same benefits here."
Wolves are a keystone species and their introduction back into places like Yellowstone have led to widespread changes in the eco-system, what Corbo called a trophic cascade.
"There is a trickle-down effect," she said. "It has an effect on everything from large carnivores like bears and scavengers. Watersheds repair themselves because elk no longer loiter near streams. Trees and vegetation by the streams grow as it should and invite the return of songbirds. Native fish return. You have cleaner watersheds. Even people who don't see intrinsic value in sustaining our wild nature, many of those people still can agree that we need clean water and healthy eco-systems."
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