The Status of the Wolf: 6. Mexican Gray Wolves

Imgage of two Mexican wolves
© Steve Greer

Note: This article provides a summary of the recent history of the legal and ecological status of wolves in the southwestern United States. This is a complex story - although I've tried to be concise, I've also tried to be thorough. Those wishing to read only a brief synopsis of the most recent status (updated January 2012) may skip ahead to the Current Status section.

A subspecies of gray wolf that once ranged regions of Mexico and the Southwestern United States including Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, the Mexican wolf (Canis lupus baileyi) is today one of North America’s rarest indigenous large mammals, existing precariously in the wild only as a small, intensely managed population in a limited area of eastern Arizona and western New Mexico[1]. Typically inhabiting warmer and drier environs and often relying on smaller prey, “lobos” (as they are also called) are somewhat smaller than other gray wolf subspecies to the north, averaging between 50 and 80 lbs (about the size of German shepherd dogs). They also have more pointed ears and shorter coats – which are often colored with rich patterns of gray, gold, rust, black, and white – and they usually form smaller packs. Although Mexican wolves were extirpated from the wild before their behavior and ecology could be thoroughly studied, it is believed they preferred mountainous dry-forest landscapes and originally preyed mostly on mule deer, white-tailed deer, javelina (also known as peccaries), elk, and smaller mammals such as rabbits.

Since the arrival of humans along with their livestock into Mexican wolf habitat, the lobo has faced particularly difficult challenges. By the 20th century a significant reduction of the wolf’s natural prey of deer and elk as a result of human activity left the predator with little choice but to prey on the hoofed replacements – cows and sheep – making it the target of a determined effort to get rid of it. Already hunted, trapped, and poisoned for over a hundred years to the point of “functional extinction” in the wild, the passage of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973 prompted a last ditch, surreptitious effort by a few of the wolves’ most determined opponents to eliminate the last few survivors before federal protections could be implemented. By 1977, when the Mexican Wolf Species Survival Plan (SSP) was initiated to save the subspecies from imminent extinction, the only reliable reports of wolves in the wild came from remote, forested uplands in the state of Durango, Mexico. After three years of searching and laying traps, only five wolves could be captured (including one female that was pregnant). These five, along with a few other wolves from zoos that were genetically confirmed to be Mexican wolves (and which were descended from only two wolves), were placed into facilities of the SSP captive breeding program.

In 1979, as part of the overall effort to reestablish the gray wolf in some of its former range in the contiguous US, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) formed a Recovery team to plan the return of Mexican wolves to the wild. After soliciting input from local and state governments and the general public, the team presented a plan in 1982 which recommended the continuation of the captive breeding program and the re-establishment of “a viable, self-sustaining population of at least 100 Mexican wolves in a 5,000 square mile area within the subspecies’ historic range” [2]. Given the perilous state of the Mexican wolf population and conditions on the ground, this was only an interim recommendation. The team recognized that recovery from endangered status might never be possible for the Mexican wolf and deferred specifying delisting criteria. There are few and only relatively small areas in the southwest with low road density, an historically typical abundance of wild ungulates, and free of livestock (which are grazed on most of the national forest lands of the region); there were no wild wolves to release with experience hunting prey and avoiding dangerous humans and their vehicles; and resistance from livestock interests and other opponents was vehement, with a significant threat of illegal killings in the relatively open and accessible landscape.

Restored Mexican wolves would be actively reintroduced wolves, and as such the experimental, non-essential classification of the ESA was available to program managers. This was deemed critical to help mitigate opposition. Like in the Northern Rocky region, it would allow more flexible management options, including the killing of wolves believed to be depredating livestock. Also helpful in smoothing the way for recovery were public education campaigns launched by wolf advocates, including a local group called Preserve Arizona’s Wolves (P.A.W.S.).

Funding for wolf recovery in the Southwest was limited, however, and finding suitable sites for wolf re-establishment and developing management practices that were acceptable to state wildlife agencies, Indian tribes, livestock producers, hunters, wolf advocates, and the general public proved difficult. In 1990 a lawsuit was filed by wolf advocates to stimulate action, but it wasn’t until 1996 that the USFWS presented a reintroduction plan and Environmental Impact Statement identifying a primary recovery area for the Mexican gray wolf: a region of 6854 square miles containing the Apache National forest in eastern Arizona and the adjoining Gila National forest in western New Mexico, designated as the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area (BRWRA). Another area including the White Sands Missile Range in south-central New Mexico was identified as a backup. The plan specified management policies and the rights of people negatively impacted by the presence of wolves. Wolves would be intensively monitored and any that depredated livestock would be translocated or killed by wildlife managers, as would any wolves that dispersed outside the BRWRA. Landowners could obtain permits to kill wolves “engaged in the act of killing, wounding, or biting livestock” on their private land. Managers and ranchers could also use hazing techniques to discourage wolves from preying on livestock. The right for ranchers to seek compensation for livestock losses from a private fund was also acknowledged.

The proposal underwent a period of public comment and modification and was published as a Final Rule in January, 1998. That spring, several wolves were selected from the captive breeding program based upon their behavioral compatibility, reproductive performance, and whether their genes were adequately represented by other wolves in the program (so their possible loss in the wild would not be irreplaceable). The wolves were put into pre-release facilities designed to help them adapt to conditions in the wild [3], and on March 29, 1998, eleven Mexican wolves were released into the BRWRA.

Although a survey conducted in 1998 showed that 79 percent of New Mexico residents supported wolf restoration, a significant number of cattle are grazed on lands within and around the BRWRA, and anti-wolf sentiment continued to run strong among some people. The eleven newly free wolves avoided taking cattle and at least some had learned to hunt and kill wild prey, but within a year of their release five of the wolves had been shot – including the mother of a surviving wolf pup, probably the first Mexican wolf born in the wild in the US in over 20 years. A sixth wolf was missing, and some of the remaining wolves were hanging out in populated areas, feeding on trash, raiding a chicken coop, and generally making some people nervous. Program managers decided to capture the remaining five wolves and try again. Meanwhile, wolf opponents filed a lawsuit challenging the reintroduction program on grounds that it violated provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Administrative Procedures Act (APA), and the ESA itself, but the lawsuit was dismissed by federal courts in 1999.

Program managers had expected that losses of wolves could be heavy and setbacks common in the beginning, and in spite of the fate of these first pioneer wolves, “initial releases” (releases of wolves with no previous experience in the wild) and translocations (wolves captured and relocated) continued: two more initial releases and three translocations in 1998, 21 and 2 in 1999, 16 and 18 in 2000, and 15 and 6 in 2001. The total number of wolves in the wild gradually grew, and after stabilizing above 40 in 2002, initial releases dropped off until there were only five between 2005 and 2010. Translocations picked up in the mid-2000s, to a high of 16 in 2005, as more wolves in the wild got into more trouble or left the recovery area.

A review of the Mexican Wolf Recovery program by a panel of researchers in 2001 determined the program was succeeding but suggested some management modifications. They recommended that wolves leaving the recovery area no longer be removed as long as they don’t cause problems. They also recommended that ranchers dispose of the bodies of dead livestock, since many wolves that had started preying on livestock did so only after scavenging carcasses. A subsequent review in 2005 included these and other recommendations, but in the same year a federal court ruling negated the designation of Mexican wolves in the Southwest as a separate wolf population subject to distinct endangered species status. As a result, Mexican Wolf recovery planning, including implementation of the recommendations and efforts to establish delisting criteria, was suspended. Thus the Final Rule of 1998 still formerly governs the Mexican Wolf Recovery Program, and wolves persisting outside the BRWRA are still being removed today.

In 2002, the White Mountain Apache Tribe agreed to allow wolves on their reservation, which borders the BRWRA on the west, expanding the total recovery area to about 9290 square miles. In the same year the nearby San Carlos Apache Tribe reached the opposite decision and passed a resolution against allowing wolves on their reservation. In 2003 a formal agreement was reached wherein the reintroduced wolves would be managed by an interagency field team, with participation (as of 2011) by the USFWS, the Arizona Game and Fish Department, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, USDA-APHIS Wildlife Services, USDA-Forest Service, the White Mountain Apache Tribe, and a few counties in Arizona and New Mexico. In addition, an advisory working group meets quarterly which includes a forum for any interested individual or organization to participate.

The management of wolves in the Southwest continues to be intensive. Pro-active livestock protection measures include the use of fladry (which has proven effective) or conventional fencing around livestock pastures, hazing (including the use of rubber bullets and cracker shells), monitoring of wolf activity via radio-telemetry, rotation of livestock away from areas of wolf activity, providing hay during calving season so birthing livestock can be confined to protected areas, and diversionary feeding of wolves near dens and rendezvous sites. Research is being conducted on experimental measures such as taste aversion (exposing wolves to beef treated with a repulsive taste agent).

Wolves located near areas of sensitive human activity and any confirmed to be threatening or attacking livestock are usually first hazed and if that is ineffective they are removed as soon as possible, as are wolves persisting outside the recovery area boundary. If it’s only their first or second offense, they’ll likely be relocated, either immediately or after a period of confinement. If it’s their third (or more), they’ll likely be returned to permanent captivity (prior to 2009, they may have been killed). In 2007, for example, three wolves were legally killed, eight were captured and immediately relocated, eleven were captured and confined for possible future release, and six were captured and permanently returned to captive breeding facilities. A policy shift in 2007 relaxed the criteria for removing wolves, and in late 2009 lethal control policies were made more flexible, effectively ending the “three strikes” rule which required automatic elimination of wolves involved in three or more depredation incidents.

Between 1998 and 2003, an average of 3.8 cattle/calves were confirmed killed per year by Mexican wolves, which equated to 0.138 depredations per wolf in the wild. Between 2005 and 2009, the average depredation ranged between 0.365 (2008) to 0.5 (2007) cattle/calves per wolf per year. In 2010 there were twelve confirmed or probable depredations by Mexican wolves in Arizona and New Mexico (including 10 calves/cows and one colt) along with three injuries to livestock (out of 47,000 cattle permitted to graze within the wolf recovery area). In 2011 there were 22 (21 calves/cows and 1 sheep), as well as one horse that was euthanized due to injuries from being chased. A report by the National Agricultural Statistics Service concluded that in 2005 (when the number of wolves in the wild was near its peak) the loss of cattle and calves to predators "other than coyotes, dogs, mountain lions, and bobcats", was 1.7% of all losses in Arizona, and 2.4 % of all losses in New Mexico [4]. For sheep and lambs, in 2004 the numbers were 3.6% in Arizona and 1.9% in New Mexico [5]. The highest cattle depredation rate (that occurred in 2007) equated to about 0.07% of all the cattle present in the recovery area (in 2010 it was around 0.025%). Although losses of livestock to Mexican wolves are relatively small, any additional losses can be a troublesome economic burden to ranchers. Until 2009 the Defenders of Wildlife’s Wolf Compensation Trust was available to compensate for proven losses to wolves, and from 1998 until October, 2009, the trust had compensated $115,666 for the loss of 169 cattle, 10 sheep, and 10 "others" (could include horses, mules, goats, llamas, donkeys, pigs, chickens, geese, turkeys, herding dogs and livestock guarding dogs) to Mexican wolves in the Southwest [6]. In October 2009, compensation was assumed by the federal government. The Mexican Wolf Interdiction Trust Fund, established by the USFWS and administered by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, also provides funds to livestock operators to implement pro-active non-lethal methods to reduce losses.

During 2009, four wolves involved in depredation incidents were translocated, but no wolves were legally killed or removed permanently from the wild (several wolves were hazed, which ultimately proved ineffective so livestock were moved; one wolf believed to be involved in depredation was illegally shot and another disappeared). In 2010 two wolves that had been caught outside the BRWRA were translocated back into the recovery area and there were other translocations to facilitate potential breeding, but there were no removals [7]. In 2011 there were a few translocations to facilitate potential breeding [8]; there was one removal from the wild; and a lone female wolf was killed by wildlife control agents on private land within the Gila National Forest – she had previously mated with a domestic dog and was again hanging out near a residence where there were dogs. As evidenced by this latter case, lone dispersers are having difficulty finding other wolves in the wild to mate with due to the small population (hence the translocations to facilitate pairings).

Current Status of Mexican Wolves (updated January 2012)

The expansion of the Mexican wolf population in the wild has been slower than hoped by program managers, biologists, and wolf advocates. A high of 59 wolves was reached in the recovery area in 2006, but the number had dropped to 42 by 2009. The population climbed back to about 50 by the end 2010, including the survival of 14 of 18 pups, but there were only two breeding pairs. During the summer denning season of 2011, the wolves managed to survive fairly well the largest wildfire in Arizona’s history, the Wallow fire, which burned through the territories of three wolf packs. All three packs moved their dens to avoid the fire, and at least some of the pups in two of the three packs are known to have survived. Surveys completed in December 2011 found that the population had climbed back to at least 58 wolves, with 12 packs and six breeding pairs (32 wolves in Arizona and 26 in New Mexico) – the first time in almost a decade that the numbers have increased for two consecutive years.

While this recent trend is encouraging, still, after thirteen years of intense management, including 92 initial releases of wolves, the number of freely roaming Mexican wolves is still far short of the initial goal of 100. About 300 wolves continue to reside in the captive breeding program at 49 facilities scattered throughout the United States and Mexico, yet the future of the Mexican wolf in the wild is not assured. The low genetic diversity of the small population is probably contributing to small litter sizes and poor pup survival (only three genetic lineages are now represented in the wild, with only one predominating). This, together with human-caused mortality and intentional removal of wolves by management personnel are likely the leading forces limiting the population, although diseases may also be a factor. Illegal shooting and vehicle collisions caused a minimum of 43% and 16%, respectively, of documented deaths through 2010 excluding intentional lethal control [9]. Five wolves were illegally killed in 2010; two were breeding males that had sired litters of pups earlier in the year. During 2011 at least two of the eight known wolf mortalities were illegal killings (a third that died from a gunshot wound in December is under investigation) [10]. In general it is difficult to apprehend perpetrators and as of this writing (January 2012) there have been only four prosecutions for illegal wolf killings in the history of the recovery program [11].

A recent assessment by the USFWS concluded that the Mexican wolf population in the wild is "at risk of failure" and cannot grow without continual releases from the captive breeding program [12]. Yet there have been no releases of new Mexican wolves into the wild in the United States since the fall of 2008. A rule in effect since 1998 stipulates that initial releases (as opposed to wolves that are or were previously in the wild) can only occur in the "primary recovery zone," which covers only about 25% of the 4.4 million acre recovery area (in Greenlee County, AZ). Some scientists and wolf advocates believe that initial releases should be extended to the 700,000 acre Gila Wilderness in New Mexico, where no cattle grazing is allowed, and in fact this was recommended by the review panel in the program review of 2001. In December 2011, the Arizona Game and Fish Commission, while deciding to continue its financial and logistical support for the recovery program, also decided to withdraw support for any new releases until the USFWS completes an the update of the recovery plan and an environmental impact statement. In January 2012 they revised this ruling to allow the Game and Fish director to approve releases to replace illegally killed wolves, while the commission itself could approve releases to replace other dead wolves on a case-by-case basis.

Meanwhile, recent developments south of the US-Mexico border have provided some new support for wolves in the wild. As part of its own effort to restore the critically endangered species, Mexico released five wolves into the Sierra San Luis, a mountain range in the northeast corner of Sonora, on October 11, 2011 [13]. Releases of wolves in Mexico, of which this was the first, adds territory and much needed genetic diversity to the population of Mexican wolves in the wild, although it is unclear how evolving border security may affect potential migration. Wolf opponents to the north are uneasy about releases of wolves in Mexico because any that migrate into the US would receive full federal endangered species protections (unless they enter the BRWRA in which case they would join the existing wolves there as being subject to the controls allowed for an experimental population). In October, 2011, the governor of Utah wrote a letter to the US Secretary of the Interior opposing any plans to extend federal protection to Mexican wolves that disperse into the southern part of the state (such protection would seem to be required under the federal ESA).

North of the border, wolf proponents are applying pressure for more significant actions and protections. In 2009 several groups (the Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians, the Rewilding Institute) filed petitions requesting that the Mexican gray wolf be given protection status as an endangered subspecies separate from other gray wolves, or as a Distinct Population Segment (as formerly), either of which would require the USFWS to develop a full recovery and protection plan for a critically endangered species, complete with de-listing goals and a plan to reach them. In August 2010 the USFWS issued a statement that the petitions have merit and a status review will be conducted. The Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Planning Team met for the first time in February 2011 to begin developing a recovery plan; the team includes ranchers, hunters, conservationists, biologists and wildlife managers, although some wolf advocates feel that representation is not balanced. Meanwhile, some wolf opponents have filed lawsuits to allow the killing by landowners of wolves believed responsible for depredations.

As court battles, legislative proposals (both for and against wolf protection), and management planning proceed, the White Mountain Apache Tribe has begun realizing an economic benefit from the presence of wolves by offering eco-tours beginning in June 2010, featuring a chance for people to hear and see wild wolves as they learn about and experience the natural ecosystem of the region and tribal history and culture.

Alan E. Sparks, author of Dreaming of Wolves: Adventures in the Carpathian Mountains of Transylvania
NEXT – Part 7: The Red Wolf


  1. Recent evidence suggests that the Mexican Gray wolf’s original range may have extended further north into Colorado and Utah.
  2. Mexican Wolf Recovery Final Rule (1998)
  3. There are three such facilities, in which human contact is limited and the wolves are able to form pairs, breed, rear pups, and begin to form packs before being released. If wolves are held for several weeks at or near the release site before their release, the release is known as a “soft release”. Initially only soft releases were used for Mexican wolves. Later, both soft and hard releases were used.
  4. To be conservative (erring towards a higher percentage), calculation includes “other predators” (which includes bears) AND “unknown predators”, thus including losses from predators other than wolves. From:
  5. Category was “other predators,” meaning other that coyotes, dogs, mountain lions, bears, foxes, eagles, and bobcats. From A similar report is available for 2009 but has less specific predator categories (being only “known” and “unknown”).
  6. $19,203 was provided in compensation by Defenders of Wildlife in 2009, and $3568 in 2010 before the program ended.
    Defenders of Wildlife Wolf Conservation Trust
  7. Mexican Wolf Recovery Program: Progress Report #12
    Mexican Wolf Recovery Program: Progress Report #13
  8. As an example of a control decision, lethal control was rejected by program managers for wolves that had been involved in the depredation of three yearling calves in July and August of 2011. The pack involved contained one of only two breeding pairs still in the wild, the depredations occurred near the likely rendezvous site of the pack, and this pack has gone for long periods between depredations. It was decided that close monitoring and non-lethal control methods will be used to try to prevent further depredations by this pack.
  10. Rewards for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for the illegal killing of Mexican wolves, offered by the USFWS, the States of New Mexico and Arizona, and conservation organizations, now totals $58,000.
    Two Mexican Gray Wolves found dead.
    Another Mexican Gray Wolf found illegally shot.
    $58,000 Reward Offered in Arizona Wolf Shooting
  11. In September 2011, two men pleaded guilty to killing wolves that they said they had mistaken for coyotes (in two seperate incidences). One, who had intentionally destroyed the GPS collar on the wolf, was fined $4345; the other, who had reported the incident to authorities, was fined $1250.
  12. Mexican Wolf Conservation Assessment. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southwest Region. 2010.
  13. Planned since 2009, this first release in Mexico had been delayed until it was felt that sufficient support could be provided for landowners in the area. Mexico has about 60 additional wolves living in 18 captive breeding facilities.

[This article is current as of January, 2012. The status of wolves in the United States changes rapidly. Updates may occasionally be provided.]

© 2012, Alan E. Sparks. All rights reserved.

NEXT Part 7: The Red Wolf