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Face-to-fang with an endangered Mexican wolf

This Mexican gray wolf from the Eagle Creek pack in Eastern Arizona was captured for an examination during the annual wolf count. The healthy 8-year-old male was released back into the wild several hours later. (Peter O'Dowd/Here & Now)
This Mexican gray wolf from the Eagle Creek pack in Eastern Arizona was captured for an examination during the annual wolf count. The healthy 8-year-old male was released back into the wild several hours later. (Peter O'Dowd/Here & Now)

One of the most iconic and reviled predators in the United States is having a moment.

In December, 10 gray wolves were released into the mountains of Colorado as part of a voter-approved effort to reintroduce the animals to the state. And further south, in Arizona and New Mexico, the smaller subspecies of Mexican gray wolf is thriving, too.

“In the last four to five years, the population has really started to take off and basically boom,” said Brady McGee, the Mexican wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Not long ago, the Mexican gray wolf  — or the lobo — was on the brink of extinction. When it was first listed as endangered in 1976, McGee says there were no Mexican gray wolves left in the wild. Ranchers and the U.S. government had launched a successful campaign to eradicate them.

“[In the] early 1900s, the federal government basically waged war on all predators … to increase the livestock industry in the area,” McGee says.

Brady McGee coordinates the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Mexican gray wolf recovery program. (Peter O’Dowd/Here & Now)

That attitude changed along with protections under the Endangered Species Act. In 1998, the lobo was reintroduced into the wild when 11 captive-bred animals were released in Eastern Arizona and New Mexico.

A crew member carries a tranquilized Mexican gray wolf off a helicopter during the annual wolf count in Alpine, Ariz. (Peter O’Dowd/Here & Now)

More than two decades later, the populations are thriving. Last year, for the first time, the annual Mexican wolf count found at least 242 wild wolves. That was a new record.

Under the government’s current recovery plan, the wolf count must average 320 animals over eight years before it can start the process of getting removed from federal protection. That’s why wildlife managers head out into the mountains every winter to take a census of wild wolves.

“We’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel,” said McGee, who expects this year’s numbers to be even higher. “In the very near future we are going to have gray wolves — including Mexican gray wolves — from the Mexican border all the way to Canada.”

Ranchers feud with ‘savages’

That prediction has ranchers like Wink Crigler increasingly anxious. The X Diamond Ranch in the White Mountains of Arizona has been in her family since before statehood.

“The word ‘wolf’ conjures up fear and danger,” said Crigler, as she watched over about a dozen cows lolling near the banks of the Little Colorado River. “I’ve survived drought, I’ve survived fire, I’ve survived bad markets. But I do have a question as to whether the ranch can survive wolves.”

The X Diamond Ranch near Springerville, Ariz., is in the heart of Mexican gray wolf territory. (Peter O’Dowd/Here & Now)

During calving season, Crigler says she pays more than $100,000 to move most of her herd to a pasture far away from the wolves’ territory, where calves can be born in relative safety. Still, it’s common to lose a cow to wolves, she said.

A few years ago a pet calf was attacked right outside her front door. “It makes me shed a tear because, yes, they are livestock. But they’re your partners. You grow up with them,” she said. “It makes you pretty sad when you look out and see the brutality of these savages that come onto your land and murder your property.”

Wink Crigler’s X Diamond Ranch has been in her family since before Arizona became a state. (Peter O’Dowd/Here & Now)

This feud between ranchers and wolves is nothing new in the West. But state and federal wildlife officials are trying to satisfy the concerns of ranchers as they also prop up wolf numbers.

Arizona’s wildlife department has a team of range riders to help keep wolves away from cows. Last year, lobos killed 111 livestock in New Mexico and Arizona — which is down from the year before, according to government reports.

Ranchers get compensated when investigators can prove it was a wolf. Although livestock producers say the bar to prove wolf depredation recently got tougher to clear. Proof can also be difficult or impossible to find when all that’s left of a carcass is a pile of bones.

“We believe there is a tie between wolf recovery and rancher acceptance,” said Jim DeVoss, Mexican wolf coordinator for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. “If you think about it, these people are trying to eke out a living and the loss of a cow or a calf is money out of their pocket.”

Last year, the state received 41 requests for wolf-kill compensation and made payments to 17 ranchers, DeVoss said. Wildlife advocates point out that relatively few livestock are killed by predators compared to other dangers like weather and illness.

Face to face with a wolf

After the results of last year’s record-breaking census were published, conservationist Bryan Bird told Here & Now that humans are a major risk to wolf recovery, along with a limited pool of genetic diversity.

“The wild population is so closely related they might as well be brothers and sisters,” said Bird, the Southwest director for Defenders of Wildlife. “Inbreeding can lead to secondary extinction.”

Wildlife managers are trying to increase the gene pool by placing wolf pups that were born in captivity into the dens of wild wolf packs. But the dangers of life in the wilderness are real. Last year, the Fish and Wildlife Service reported that 30 Mexican wolves died in the wild. It’s likely that humans illegally killed 11 of them.

A crew from the Arizona Game and Fish Department prepares to board a helicopter during the annual Mexican gray wolf count in Alpine, Ariz. (Peter O’Dowd/Here & Now)

As the wolf count approaches the milestone for recovery, biologists say every animal is critical. Whenever a wolf is captured during the annual census, a team of veterinarians gives it a thorough exam. On a recent snowy afternoon, a helicopter crew darted an 8-year-old male and carried him into a crowded trailer. Dr. Susan Dicks and her team drew blood for genetics testing, monitored his breathing, and replaced the animal’s broken radio collar.

A team of wildlife experts examines a 58-pound Mexican gray wolf captured near Alpine, Ariz. (Peter O’Dowd/Here & Now)

When Dicks removed the wolf’s muzzle to check on his broken teeth, the tranquilized animal stared back at her with a wild, blinking eye. In a few hours, the sedative wore off and he staggered back into the mountains to find his mate in the Eagle Creek pack.

“It’s wolf breeding season,” Dicks said. “So we really want to get him back out there and get to work.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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