Return of the Wolves:The Next Chapter

Sherry Barrett

Sherry Barrett transcript
Wolves 2/KUED
 
Sherry Barrett
I'm Sherry Barrett. I'm the Mexican Wolf Recovery Coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service.
 
Interviewer
What is the current status of Mexican Wolves?
 
Sherry Barrett
The Mexican Wolf is considered endangered as part of the Gray Wolf listing, and in the United States though the population that's in the wild is under an experimental population, nonessential experimental population. I'll rephrase that. The Mexican Wolf in the United States is part of a nonessential experimental population.
 
Interviewer
What is the history of Mexican Wolves?
 
Sherry Barrett
The Mexican Wolf occurred in the United States from pretty much Central New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, southward down to Oaxaca, Mexico.
 
Sherry Barrett
(take 2) What is the history of the Mexican Wolves?
 
Sherry Barrett
The history of Mexican wolves is that they historically occurred in the United States from about central Arizona and New Mexico southward down to Oaxaca, Mexico. But in the late 1800s the United States took on a campaign to eliminate predators in the United States, and they did this with a lot of gassing and poisoning. And the Mexican Wolf in the United States was pretty much eradicated in the 1970s, and after that eradicated in Mexico in the 1980s. At that time we went down and started collecting the last of the Mexican Wolves in Mexico.
 
Interviewer
Why do they need to be recovered, and what circumstances led to these efforts?
 
Sherry Barrett
The Mexican Wolf was eradicated in the United States in the 1970s and in Mexico in the 1980s, and at that time we passed the Endangered Species Act in 1973. At that time we started going back down to Mexico to try and find the remaining Mexican Wolves in the wild, and we were able to find five of those and bring them north. We eventually found an additional two lineages of Mexican Wolves in captive facilities in the United States and Mexico. That brought us to a founding population of seven animals. And so from those seven animals we developed a captive breeding population, which now hovers between 260 - 300 animals, and about 52 facilities in the United States and Mexico. From those animals that are in that captive population, then we started a recovery effort into the wild, into the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area that occurs in New Mexico and Arizona. And so from that we've developed a population now of 75 animals, and most of those are wild born. We developed a recovery plan for the Mexican Wolf in 1982, and at that time there were no animals in the wild. We developed a recovery plan in 1982, and at that time there were no Mexican Wolves in the wild in either the United States or Mexico, and so we didn't really know at that time how wolves behaved in the wild, especially the Mexican Wolf. And so we really had at that point, the people that were working on the recovery plan had no idea really how to recover this species, and so they did not include recovery criteria into that recovery plan because they really couldn't imagine what that would even look like at that point in time. And so what they did was recommended a prime objective of a captive population of 260 wolves in captivity, and to try and attain a wild population of at least 100 wolves. And so from that recovery plan then we began our efforts to release wolves into the wild, and at this point we now have a population in the wild of at least 75. So we're getting close to that population target that they had originally thought that maybe we could attain during this interim period of 100 wolves.
 
Interviewer
How many wolves were left in the wild before recovery efforts began?
 
Sherry Barrett ***
Before the recovery efforts began there were no wolves in the wild. They had been completely exterminated in the United States and Mexico, and so we found… before they were exterminated in Mexico we found five remaining wolves and brought those back into our captive breeding population, but at the point that we started the recovery of the wolves, at that point there were none left in the wild. They had been eliminated in both the United States and Mexico.
 
Interviewer
Where did you find those five wolves?
 
Sherry Barrett
They were found in different parts of Mexico. And I can get back to you if you want the specific states.
 
Interviewer
What was the cause of this near extinction?
 
Sherry Barrett
The cause of the near extinction of the wolves in the wild was the program by the U.S. government to eliminate predators in the wild, which started in the late 1800s. And they were successful in exterminating the Mexican Wolf in the wild in the United States in the '70s and in Mexico in the 1980s.
 
Interviewer
What is the greatest obstacle to recovery of the Mexican Wolves?
 
Sherry Barrett
The greatest obstacle to recovery of Mexican Wolves in the wild is really two things, I will say it's intolerance on the ground of wolves on a top predator in a working landscape, and also of inbreeding for our population. With regard to the intolerance of humans, we have a lot of support for Mexican Wolf recovery on a national basis, but it's much more difficult for those people who live on the ground in the areas that we're releasing the wolves because they have a greater potential for affecting those people's economic livelihoods, especially those that are in the livestock production or in hunting, guiding areas. But we are working a lot with those people to overcome those conflicts between Mexican Wolves and those conflicts on the ground. With regard to inbreeding, we started with a captive population of only seven founding wolves, and so from that, as you can imagine, inbreeding becomes an issue, and also the kinship of wolves on the ground. And so we spend a lot of time maintaining the genetic diversity that we do have of wolves on the wild.
 
Interviewer
How do ranchers in recovery areas feel about reintroduction efforts and why?
 
Sherry Barrett
For the most part most livestock producers in the areas where we're releasing wolves are opposed to the reintroduction process. And the reason is they believe that the wolves will affect their economic livelihood, that is the production of livestock. And wolves do depredate on livestock. However, their main food source is elk. Eighty percent of the diet of Mexican Wolves consists of elk. However, they do also prey on livestock from time to time.
 
Interviewer
Are the issues political, and if so why?
 
Sherry Barrett
The issues around Mexican Wolves are political. There's a lot of negative and positive thoughts about wolves and also about livestock, and so when you get those emotional values around those two issues there's a lot of conflict that arises on the ground, and that also results as well in political issues.
 
Interviewer
What has been learned about Mexican Wolves from your research efforts?
 
Sherry Barrett
When we first started the reintroduction project for the Mexican Wolf we expected that Mexican Wolves would prey mostly on deer, because they're smaller than other wolves, and for the most part they evolved in areas without elk. However, what we've found is that 80% of the diet of Mexican Wolves is elk, and so that was a different issue than we expected. We've also found that genetically the Mexican Wolves are the most genetically unique of the subspecies of Mexican Wolves, and that there has been a question over the years on whether or not there has been any influence of dog into the genetic… There's been questions over the years on whether there's any dog in the genetics of wolves, and we have found through research that there is not, which is good news for us, because it's important that we have a pure population of Mexican Wolves. We also, when we first released wolves, within the first month of that first release, those wolves brought down an elk, and that was a great sign for us because it showed that these animals that were bred in captivity could act as wild animals.
 
Sherry Barrett
We continue to have different researchers from different universities looking into genetic issues with regard to the Mexican Wolf. We're always having different researchers look at predator prey. From our program we continue to maintain and study the genetics of this population as well to maintain that genetic diversity that we need in the wild.
 
Interviewer
What happens when a wolf kills livestock? What's the procedure?
 
Sherry Barrett
When we have a report that there's a possible death of a livestock from a wolf, we have the Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services go out to make the determination on whether it was wolf caused or not. There are a lot of other animals, as you can imagine, that also prey on livestock; black bears, mountain lions, and even feral dogs and coyotes. And so what Wildlife Services does is look at the type of kill and other marks in the area, footprints for example, and other signs to determine whether or not that kill was caused by wolves or some other animal. At that point, if it is caused by a wolf, then we try and figure out which wolf pack or individual wolf it might have been based on telemetry data and other issues, and we can institute a number of different activities that can deter further depredations from occurring. We employ, with assistance of funding from different organizations, assist these ranchers with range riders. We assist with the construction of fences and development of waters, fladry and hazing. And we can also translocate those wolves to other areas where there are few livestock depredations that may occur.
 
Interviewer
How and why do Mexican Wolves get in trouble?
 
Sherry Barrett
Mexican wolves get in trouble on the landscape mostly through two different avenues, through nuisance behaviors or through depredation. Nuisance behaviors are if they become too close to humans, often with hunters or residential areas, and depredations are if they prey on livestock or other animals, horses or pets even.
 
Interviewer
Can you discuss this specific case study?
 
Sherry Barrett
We had a wolf that we released last year, 1105, and she was released to replace another wolf that had been illegally killed, and she had nuisance behavior. She had encountered a number of different hunting camps and…
 
Sherry Barrett
1105 was a wolf that we released last year that had some nuisance behaviors. She interacted with different hunting camps, interacted with dogs at different times, and finally she became very close to a residence, and she was lethally removed.
 
Interviewer
What are the different control measures used?
 
Sherry Barrett
There's three levels of control measures that we use. One is lethal. There's also, we have permanent and also have temporary removals of wolves that we're unable to otherwise deter their behavior. We've had 12 lethal removals over the life of the program since 1998. However, we're most commonly, if we're going to need to control an animal we use either permanent or temporary removals from the wild. And those wolves are then captured and brought into either Sevilleta and National Wildlife Refuges, Wolf management facility, or other pre-released facilities for future release back into the wild, or they're put into one of our other breeding facilities.
 
Interviewer
How many of the reintroduced wolves have been affected by control actions?
 
Sherry Barrett ***
We have had to lethally remove 12 wolves, and we've had approximately, I'd say 150 other types of removals, temporary and permanent over the years since 1998.
 
Interviewer
Is the program successful?
 
Sherry Barrett
The program is successful. We've been able to avoid the extinction of the Mexican wolf. When the Mexican Wolf Recovery Program first started there were no wolves in the wild, so we've gone from a founding population of seven wolves, building a breeding facility nationwide…
 
Sherry Barrett
The Mexican Wolf Recovery Program has been a success, especially in the fact that we have avoided the extinction of the Mexican Wolf. When we first started there were no wolves left in the wild, and we have been able to, from seven founding wolves, built a captive breeding population of 260 to 300 wolves in about 52 facilities in the United States and Mexico. And from those captive wolves we've been able to develop a wild population in the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area, now at least 75 wolves in the wild, and that's a huge success over time really. And from that we now have a steadily increasing population that has gone from 50 wolves a few years ago, now we're up to a minimum of 75 wolves in the wild, and of that over 95% are wild born. And we have 4th generation of wolves now in the wild. And so what that means is that we've been able to take a captive population of wolves and have them behave as wild wolves on the ground. It's not just a put and take. They're not just going out there and dying. They're actually behaving as wolves. They're forming packs. They're breeding. They're successfully raising pups in the wild, and that's a huge success for us.
 
Interviewer
What criteria would you use to determine success?
 
Sherry Barrett
Success for us in the wild is really having wolves that are able to behave as wolves in the wild and to grow their own population without us having to constantly replace wolves. What we do need to continue to have influence on is the genetic diversity of that population in the wild, just because we did start from only 7 founding wolves. But, like I said, right now the population is growing and that's really exciting for us right now.
 
Interviewer
What is the target population?
 
Sherry Barrett
The target population for this population here in the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area is a minimum of 100 wolves, but that's not recovery. At the point that they developed the 1982 recovery plan they really couldn't envision what recovery would look like because there were no wolves on the ground at that time, and so they only envisioned that we could start with a population, try and get a hundred wolves in the wild, and now we're at a minimum of 75, so we're getting towards that original concept that they could only just imagine. And now we're in the process of revising a recovery plan to really find out what the recovery goals should be, and that number of wolves that need to be in the wild so that we can recover and take the species off the Endangered Species List.
 
Interviewer
What is the public's attitude toward Mexican Wolves?
 
Sherry Barrett ***
There's a wild diversity of public attitudes toward the Mexican Wolf. Polls nationwide generally show that the majority of people in the United States want to see Mexican wolves in the wild, even if they'll never see one themselves. Wolves are an icon of the wilderness. People feel a very strong emotional attachment to wolves. But on the converse side, the people in whose areas we are releasing wolves often are opposed to wolves because they may affect their livelihoods. And so we see, while the majority of people in the United States may want Mexican Wolves on the ground, we do see a lot of adversity towards Mexican Wolves from those people into whose areas, maybe their permit allotments or their private lands wolves may be released.
 
Interviewer
Compare and contrast the situation with Mexican Wolves to reintroduction efforts in Yellowstone.
 
Sherry Barrett
The biggest differences between the recovery efforts in the Northern Rocky Mountains populations and the Mexican Wolf population is that the Northern Rocky Mountains didn't have to have a captive breeding population before they released wolves. They were able to go into Canada and capture wolves and then release those wild wolves into Yellowstone and other areas in the Northern Rocky Mountains, and so they didn't have to develop any wild behaviors. They were naturally wild. They also don't have any of the genetic issues that we had from only having seven founders. They have no genetic problems in the Northern Rocky Mountain populations. Another big difference between the two population recovery efforts is that they have large areas in the Northern Rocky Mountains that have very little human influence, for example, Yellowstone, and the Central Idaho wilderness areas. And we have a very small wilderness here that we're working with--the Gila wilderness and the Aldo Leopold, and so we don't have the benefit of those large areas without any human conflicts that we have for releasing wolves back into the wild.
 
Interviewer
What do you see for the future of Mexican Wolves in the Southwest?
 
Sherry Barrett
I think it's a really exciting time for Mexican Wolf recovery right now. We're working with our recovery team to develop a revisory recovery plan which will show us what we need to do to achieve recovery of the Mexican Wolf in the wild and to get it towards that population level and to be able to delist it eventually. And we see the population growing right now, and so there's a lot of exciting things that are going on towards the recovery of the Mexican Wolf in the wild.
 
Interviewer
What is the difference between Yellowstone and Mexican wolves--the species?
 
Sherry Barrett
Mexican Wolves are actually listed right now as a Grey Wolf, and so they are the same species. The Mexican Wolf is a subspecies of the Grey Wolf, but at this point in time it is listed as just part of the Grey Wolf population. The differences are genetic. There are genetic differences between the Grey Wolf and the Mexican Wolf, and there are some size differences as well. The Mexican Wolf is much smaller than the Northern Rocky Mountain wolves in the Western Great Lakes. They often have pure black wolves or white wolves in their populations, and we don't have any pure black or white wolves in the Mexican Wolf population.
 
Interviewer
Describe the Fox Mountain female and her story.
 
Sherry Barrett
The Fox Mountain female is part of the Fox Mountain Pack, and that pack began depredating on livestock outside of the recovery area, and we did a number of different actions to try and deter those depredations from occurring further, and were unsuccessful in doing so. Eventually we did look at the overall population of that pack and the genetics and determined that sometimes if you are able to remove one of the alphas, you can change the behavior of the overall pack. We determined that she had the… was least genetically valuable to the overall population, and we did remove her from the wild and we put her into a captive breeding facility in Scottsdale, Arizona.
 
Interviewer
What would you say to people that would say that there just isn't enough wild country left for Mexican Wolves?
 
Sherry Barrett
There are people that will say that there is too many humans on the landscape right now for the Mexican Wolf to recover. However, I think that that's not necessarily the case. There are a lot of examples of Mexican Wolves existing with humans in different parts of the United States. The Western Great Lakes and Northern Rocky Mountains certainly have people on the landscape, even though some of those areas in the Northern Rocky Mountains are very large without human conflicts, but also, if you look around the world as well. There are wolves that exist with humans on the landscape and they're around Italy and other parts of Europe.
 
Interviewer
What is it like to see a wolf released?
 
Sherry Barrett
It's very exciting to see a wolf released in the wild. They're a magnificent animal, and it's great to see them go back into the wild.
 
Sherry Barrett
We have a captive breeding population of approximately 260 to 300 wolves depending on the year, and those captive wolves exist in about 52 breeding facilities in the United States and Mexico. All of those breeding facilities are managed as one population, and they're all managed under the Mexican Wolf Species Survival Plan. And so every year all the owners of those different facilities get together, meet and determine based on the Species Survival Plan, which wolves will be bred and which will be transferred among facilities to maintain genetic diversity of those populations. And so all of the wolves that exist in Mexico right now do exist as part of that overall population. We work very close with Mexico in that regard. Mexico initiated their first release of wolves back into the wild since they were exterminated in Mexico in the '70s, and that first release occurred in October of 2011.
 
Sherry Barrett
Mexico began their first release of Mexican wolves back into the wild in October of 2011, and so those were the first wolves that were released back into the wild in Mexico since their eradication in the 1970s, so it's very exciting to be working with Mexico to recover the Mexican Wolf range-wide from Arizona to New Mexico down through Mexico. They do have a lot of issues that they are also addressing with regard to human conflicts on the ground, but we're working with them and very hopeful that they will also be successful.
 
Interviewer
How many Mexican Wolves are there in Mexico now?
 
Sherry Barrett
There's a pair right now of Mexican Wolves on the ground in Mexico. They released those in September. The first wolves that they released in October were killed in the wild. They suspected it was poison, which is unfortunate, but they are still trying for additional releases. They released a pair of wolves again then in September of 2012, and those wolves are still in the wild and we're hoping that they breed and have pups this year.