Monday, July 8, 2013

Obama Administration Declares Gray Wolves No Longer Endangered Except for 75 Mexican Wolves in Arizona and New Mexico

Reopening of Comment Period. On February 10, 2014, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service the reopening of the comment period on its June 13, 2013, release (79 Fed. Reg. 7627).  The comment period is now scheduled to close on March 27, 2014.  Anyone unable to comment earlier should do so now. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to get out of the wolf preservation business altogether.  It will accept a very limited responsibility for a remnant of 75 Mexican wolves, a subspecies of gray wolf, struggling to survive in the forests between New Mexico and Arizona. The agency handicaps its odds even there by saying that the task is hopeless so nothing should be expected by anyone, least of all the wolves. (The announcement of the proposed change consists of 80 pages in the Federal Register: 78 Fed. Reg. 35664, June 13, 2013.)

Sadly, it appears that President Obama believes that the Endangered Species Act is being respected.  Celebrating the 160th anniversary of the Department of the Interior, on March 3, 2009, the President was quoted as saying: "For more than three decades, the Endangered Species Act has successfully protected our nation's most threatened wildlife, and we should be looking for ways to improve it, not weaken it."  He claimed that the Act had been "undermined by past administrations," a comment that drew applause, according to news reportsIf the current proposal is enacted, it has to be said that President Obama is doing more to destroy the goals of the Endangered Species Act with regard to gray wolves than any of his predecessors.

The logic behind taking wolves off the endangered list in 42 other states is based on the following arguments:
  1.  Wolves in the Eastern U.S. are protected as Canis lupus, but most of them are really Canis lycaon or Canis rufus, separate species, and since Canis lupus was not in this area in the distant past, it not does need to be protected there.  Fish and Wildlife will “study” what to do about Canis lycaon, but at the moment will do nothing. (Canis rufus remains listed as endangered where found in the southeastern and mid-Atlantic U.S. as detailed at 32 Fed. Reg. 4001, March 11, 1967.)
  2. Wolves, Canis lupus, are doing just fine in the Western Great Lakes Region and the Northern Rocky Mountains, so they do not need any more help from Fish and Wildlife, as the agency previously determined and as was discussed earlier here.  Although already delisted in those areas, Fish and Wildlife believes that some of the wolves will move into other areas as populations stabilize.
  3. Wolves in the Pacific Northwest are not doing well, but they are getting too close to urban centers, roads, agriculture, and people, so not much can be done because these areas have been “irreversibly modified for human use.”  Besides, there are plenty of wolves in Canada that can cross the border if they want to expand their range.  Canada, Fish and Wildlife points out, does an even worse job of trying to protect its wolves than the U.S. does, but the wolves are for the most part not endangered in Canada despite being hunted and trapped for pelts and killed for the sport of it.
  4. Wolves everywhere else in the western U.S. are doing well enough under the “best available scientific and commercial information” that they can be forgotten. It is not so much that there is evidence they will survive but rather that there is “no substantial evidence” that they will not. 
Not stated, but I suspect a major argument in deliberations inside the Department of the Interior, is the fact that forgetting about wolves will be a budget savings at a time when the Obama administration wants to concentrate resources elsewhere.  

Current Status of Wolves as Endangered and Threatened Wildlife

To see how massive this proposed change will be for wolves, take a moment to look at the following map of the U.S. showing in dark gray the current area of the U.S. where wolves are listed as endangered.  Only along the northern border of our country are they deemed to be recovered.  The cross-hatched areas in Arizona and New Mexico will, if the proposed rules are finalized, be the only place where Fish and Wildlife will continue to provide even nominal protection.
Current Gray Wolf Endangered Species Act Status

Eastern Wolf (Canis lycaon)

In 2011, Fish and Wildlife proposed delisting gray wolves in 29 states in the eastern U.S., as discussed in a prior blog. That proposal was not finalized and is now replaced by a proposal to delist gray wolves in 42 states. In 2011, the agency said it would be looking at the status of the other wolf species or subspecies in those states, but as has been true for most of the Obama administration, the agency’s focus continues to be on what it no longer needs to do, rather than on what it should do for wolves.  So rather than determining whether protection is needed for Canis lycaon (called eastern wolves or eastern timber wolves in the 2011 release), the agency uses historical range as an excuse to withdraw protection from gray wolves where it has now determined that they are only interlopers.  Of course, there is little concern about protecting hybrid groups in areas between the different types of wolves which Fish and Wildlife labels “ambiguous zones of admixture.”  

Canis lycaon was listed as endangered in 1967 but that was removed when it was declared not to be a separate species but a subspecies of gray wolf in 1978 (43 Fed. Reg. 9607, March 9, 1978). Although not disturbing its prior determination of Canis rufus as endangered, the renewed species status for Canis lycaon does not revive its prior endangered status.  Fish and Wildlife states that “we are not prepared to make a determination on the conservation status of C. lycaon throughout its range in the United States and Canada at this time.” (I hope that I am wrong that Fish and Wildlife is ignoring its responsibilities and that within a couple of weeks there will be more about eastern wolves in the Federal Register, but until I see such a release I am not prepared to eat any words.)

Mexican Wolf Protection

USFWS Photo of Mexican Wolf
The Mexican wolf, a subspecies of the gray wolf referred to throughout the June release as Canis lupus baileyi, is the only winner, if it can be called that, in Fish and Wildlife’s June 2013 pronouncement.  The agency had no choice but to conclude that the subspecies “continues to warrant endangered status.”  In summarizing scientific studies, the pronouncement notes that this subspecies “may represent the last surviving remnant of the initial wave of gray wolf migration into North America.”  Scientists have argued for that gray wolves crossed in at least three waves from Eurasia into Alaska during the Pleistocene.  (Dogs came over the same way with humans, and here also there are interesting questions about how many times it happened, and the extent of reverse migrations.)  

The degree of danger to the Mexican wolf is considerable. Wayne and Hedrick (2011) state: 

"Mexican wolves are quite different from NRM [Northern Rocky Mountain] wolves because they all descend from captive animals, have initially a much higher level of inbreeding, suffer a higher rate of human-caused mortality, and ... have a much more precarious probability of persistence." 

According to Fish and Wildlife:

“A single gray wolf population (C.l. baileyi), of at least 75 wolves (as of December 31, 2012) inhabits the southwestern United States today in central Arizona and New Mexico.  In Mexico, efforts to reestablish a wild population … began in 2011.  Of eight wolves released between October 2011 and October 2012, two wolves are “fate unknown,” four are confirmed dead, and two are alive as of January 2, 2013 …. In addition, a captive population of 240 to 300 C.l. baileyi exists in the United States and Mexico today in about 50 captive breeding facilities.” 

This represents something of an improvement since, in 1976, no wild Mexican wolf populations were known to remain in the U.S. or Mexico. A few were thought to live in the Sierra Madres.  Fish and Wildlife began introducing captive-born C.l. baileyi to the wild in 1998. Some are found on the Fort Apache and White Mountain Apache lands of Arizona and New Mexico.  The agency is hoping to get the population up to 100 and has posted a detailed Mexican Wolf Conservation Assessment.

The subspecies inhabits pine-oak woodlands in Arizona and New Mexico, as well as mixed-conifer forests in the Rocky Mountains.  They can feed on mule deer and white-tailed deer but show a strong preference for elk when available.  Fires have been a major threat, as have trapping and other hunting (mostly illegal), disease, and road kills by vehicles (the latter accounting for about 15% of deaths).  Fortunately, according at least to Fish and Wildlife, “public polling data in Arizona and New Mexico shows that most respondents have positive feelings about wolves and support the reintroduction of C.l. baileyi.”

Hybridization with dogs is a rare event, but Fish and Wildlife does not like it:

“Three confirmed hybridization events between C. l. baileyi and dogs have been documented since the reintroduction project began in 1998. In the first two cases, hybrid litters were humanely euthanized…. In the third case, four of five pups were humanely euthanized; the fifth pup, previously observed by project personnel but not captured, has not been located and its status is unknown…. No hybridization between C. l. baileyi and coyotes has been confirmed through ourgenetic monitoring of coyotes, wolves, and dogs that are captured in the wild.”

Fish and Wildlife also recognizes that inbreeding can be a problem with small populations and wolves in several lineages are not showing “reproductive fitness.”  This is measured by “semen quality, sperm cell morphology and motility of sperm cells,” which in those lineages have deteriorated. 

As to its target population of 100 wild Mexican wolves, the agency acknowledges:

“At its current size of a minimum of 75 wolves, and even at the current population target of at least 100 wild wolves, the BRWRA [Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area] population is, by demographic measures, considered small …. and has a low probability of persistence. The viability of the population when it reaches its target of at least 100 wolves remains unquantified, although qualitatively this target is significantly below estimates of viability appearing in the scientific literature and gray wolf recovery plans, which suggest hundreds to over a thousand wolves are necessary for long-term persistence in the wild.”

In other words, don’t blame us if our reintroduction efforts fail and they don’t survive.  The recovery area of the Mexican wolf is shown in the following map from the most recent official Assessment.  Most wolves are inside the red boundary. 

Mexican Wolf Recovery Area
It is worth noting that the total number of red wolves in the Southeastern U.S. is not much more than that of Mexican wolves in the Southwest, somewhere between 90 and 110 according to the latest Recovery Program update.  There are additionally about 200 red wolves in captivity, some of which are breeding for reintroduction into what is left of their natural habitat. 


My wife and I were driving north on I-87 from New York City a few days ago when just past Newburgh we saw a turtle on the freeway in front of us.  People were slowing down, some honking to alert those behind them. The turtle had somehow made it across three lanes with only half a lane to go.  We could see it pulling forward with its small legs as I passed over it.  The car behind me also carefully straddled the animal, but the next one, with a driver swerving left and right to express his annoyance at the delay before him, hit and crushed it.  The poor little animal never had much of a chance but it depressed us that it had come so close to crossing such a wide and perilous obstacle course.  Five or so cars more and it would have been on the shoulder. 

That is much the fate of wolves.  It is not the intentional slaughter that is the biggest enemy any more.  It is indifference, ignorance, isolation from nature, intolerance of needs other than our own, and worst of all progress—more roads, more developments, more strip malls, more and more people—that is dooming those elements of wildness still left within our reach.  As to the Government, indifference comes from budgetary constraints, bureaucratic double-speak, insisting that hybrids do not count, fear of rules too burdensome for ranchers and hunters and hence voters, inability to manage public expectations about preserves, administrative triaging of nature, failure to think like Teddy Roosevelt once did, all in all playing God as that glorious President said we could not afford to do any more.  The wolves may survive for a time, but with the attitude of the Fish and Wildlife Service, we will wake up one day and the ancestors of our dogs will be gone from the United States.  Then we will have to hope that Canada does not remain indifferent.

Thanks to Kingsbury Parker, L.E. Papet, Yva Momatiuk, Ronald Keats, and Suzanne Boule for comments and corrections.


For a draft of a comment that can be submitted on the proposed delisting or sent to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, go the website of Defenders of Wildlife.  For letters already sent to the Obama administration on the proposal, see the website of Common DreamsA copy of the complaint filed in February by The Humane Society of the United States, Born Free USA, Help Our Wolves Live, and Friends of Animals and Their Environment to stop the earlier Great Lakes delisting proposal is posted on the USFWS website.

In response to an earlier draft of this blog, Kingsbury Parker sent some trenchant observations concerning what is happening in Washington State that I think are worth quoting in full:

“Washington State has both strong wolf support groups of Democrats west of the mountains and strong anti-wolf sentiment in Republicans east of the mountains.  Delisting will certainly result in a decline for wolf populations that are in conflict with the ranchers who have been complaining for years now.  The large portions of land devoted to agriculture should not be affected.  There is also a substantial area of forest in the northeast which is nearly unpopulated by humans that may provide some refuge for wolves.  Unfortunately, cattle ranchers here, in general, are not interested in being educated as to the positive effects of wolves on the entire ecosystem nor do they want to know how ranchers in the northeast and Great Lakes states have been coping with increased wolf populations.  I do not think that there will be much increase in the destruction of habitat in eastern Washington State during the next 25 years as the land there is mostly devoted to farming of some sort.  With increased global warming these northern lands may become more popular however.  On the bright side, so to speak, is the fact that eastern Washington has a nasty climate to begin with as it is hot in the summer and cold in the winter.  This summer they are seeing 120 degrees F in many locations so that will help stifle population growth as global warming picks up steam.  Habitat destruction may also effect human population growth such that some kind of balance in achieved but many species are going to be lost no matter what we do as this glacial epoch is coming to a close and ice will cease to exist in several thousand years.”

L.E. Papet forwarded the following studies worthy of consideration by anyone looking to understand the idiocy of Fish and Wildlife's policy from a scientific perspective: 

Esenberg, Cristina, Seager, S. Trent, and Hibbs, David E. (2013). Wolf, Elk, and Aspen Food Web Relationships: Context and Complexity.  Forest Ecology and Management,

Raikkonen, Jannikke, Vucetich, John A., Vucetich, Leah M., Peterson, Rolf O., and Nelson, Michael P. (2013). What the Inbred Scandinavian Wolf Population Tells Us about the Nature of Conservation. PLOS/One, 8(6), e67218. These authors note that "the high rate of congenital anomalies that Scandinavian wolves suffer is a manifestation of poor population health that would be mitigated by larger population size and increased immigration, insomuch as they would mitigate the genetic deterioration that is almost certainly the cause of many of these anomalies. For this reason, instituting a public harvest of wolves designed to limit abundance at this time is almost certainly inconsistent with the conservation goal of a healthy wolf population, insomuch as limiting abundance would exacerbate genetic deterioration, at least until the time when rates of natural immigration are great enough to support the population’s genetic health and the conservation status is favourable." Unfortunately, this is precisely the sort of logic that Fish and Wildlife should be employing, but quite evidently fails to understand. 

Ripple, William J., Wirsing, Aaron J., Wilmers, Christopher C., and Letric, Mike (2013). Widespread Mesopredator Effects after Wolf Extirpation.  Biological Conservation, 160, 70-79 (finding that the loss of an apex predator, the wolf is contributing to the potential extinction of other vertebrate species in parts of the American west). 

Wayne, R., and Hedrick, P. (2011).  Genetics and Wolf Conservation in the American West: Lessons and Challenges.  Heredity, 107, 16-19. 

Yule, Jeffrey V., Fournier, Robert J., and Hindmarsh, Patrick L. (2013). Biodiversity, Extinction, and Humanity's Future: The Ecological and Evolurtionary Consequences of Human Population and Resource Use.  Humanities, 2013(2), 147-159; doi:10.3390/h2020147 ("Desiring more game species, for instance, humans typically hunt predators .... Yet removing or adding predators has far reaching effects. Wolf removal has led to prey overpopulation, plant over browsing, and erosion. After wolves were removed from Yellowstone National Park, the K [number of members of a species supported by an area without deterioration of the area's ability to support the species in the future] of elk increased. This allowed for a shift in elk feeding patterns that left fewer trees alongside rivers, thus leaving less food for beaver and, consequently, fewer beaver dams and less wetland....").


  1. Hi. Where'd you get this opinion:
    Fortunately, “public polling data in Arizona and New Mexico shows that most respondents have positive feelings about wolves and support the reintroduction of C.l. baileyi.”
    I'm doing a story on Mexican Gray Wolves.
    David Forjan

    1. David: The blogger system is anonymous so this is the only way to reply. The qoute is from the June Federal Register release. I'll try to update on Thursday when I return home. J