Political opposition and illegal shootings are harming the recovery of two endangered wolf species regardless of the $80+ million government funding efforts to save them.
Politics and Illegal Shootings Are Harming the Recovery of Endangered Wolves
In Raleigh, North Carolina, two endangered wolf species are being hindered from recovery by political resistance and illegal shootings. Government efforts have amounted to over $80 million in order to save the species. However, the actions have failed to meet the recovery targets.
Wolf Population Decrease
Red wolves, which are among the common species found all over NC forests, have experienced a massive decrease in population over the past few years. Less than three dozen are left, meaning that this species is currently the most vulnerable in the U.S.
Furthermore, Mexican gray wolves are also in danger in the Southwest. In 2018, the dead wolf statistics of this species reached a record number. The number of living wolves decreased to 131. For Mexican gray wolves, it seems that poaching is among the biggest concerns. In this decade, illegal killings caused more than 50% of all deaths, according to reports. Brady McGee (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), who heads the preservation program for gray wolves, claims that the largest threat are illegal mortalities.
And the number of red wolf deaths due to illegal gunshots was one out of four. For red wolves, the biggest issue is when the breeding season clashes with the hunting season.
Aside from illegal mortalities, political opposition is the leading factor which is putting the recovery in jeopardy. Attacks on game or livestock are a key concern.
Federal officials have claimed that red wolves might be among the first to perish from the wild. According to reports, there’s a possibility that the animals will get extinct in the wild by the end of the 2020s. According to some opinions, the management needs to change.
However, for the Mexican gray wolf, there are predictions that, with enough effort, the population will double in only a few years. The Fish and Wildlife Service believes this will happen.
Troublesome Results and History
Tensions regarding wolves have existed ever since the Europeans landed. Early settlers paid large bounties to the government. They were meant for the establishment of extermination programs. The cause of many issues for agricultural and rural life were the large populations of wolves. Hence, they became a target.
As the 1960s ended, federal officials established some recovery programs. Back then, the only species were Western Gray wolves (areas bordering with Canada), Mexican wolves (Mexico), and Red wolves (Louisiana and Texas). However, the programs gained plenty of direct opposition from communities and ranchers. While the Western gray wolf population has recovered, the other two are in great danger.
Currently, there are approximately six thousand Western gray wolves found in the Western Great Lakes, Northern Rockies, and the Pacific Northwest. Plus, it is completely illegal to hunt them in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. The key factor of their recovery is the fact that the animals re-established on large public lands. Here, the wolves can roam freely and hunt elk along with other animals.
When it comes to Mexican gray wolves, their habitat — mainly consisting of desert mountain ranges — poses a problem. These wolves hunt livestock on farms, which can create huge problems for the locals.
From the 1980s to recent years, the number of red wolves killed by gunshots is a staggering 96. Additionally, there were 83 Mexican wolf deaths caused by illegal shootings from 1990–2018. But officials are investigating 21 other deaths.
Even with all the funds spent on the recovery of these two species, the future seems bleak. The recovery of Mexican wolves has cost almost $45 million since the late 1970s. For red wolves, federal reports indicate that around $40 million was invested in the last 30 years. Compared to Western gray wolf recovery programs, the numbers are much smaller since these programs have cost around $160 million overall.
Scientists have recently made an official distinction, claiming that red wolves need to be classified as a distinct species. Among some chief arguments of landowners is the premise that these animals are actually a hybrid of coyotes and wolves. Today, a discouragingly small number remains in the wilderness. Up to 30 wolves are left and around 200 are held in captivity for breeding programs.
In 1987, the species was reintroduced to the wilderness of North Carolina. Back then, their numbers grew over 100 and were steady until 2012. Even though it was successful, the program did not meet its goals of releasing 220 wolves. The wolf population was harmed by territory competition with coyotes. In 2015, the efforts were stopped due to constant pressure from landowners and politicians. The biggest claim was that the wolves were a nuisance. According to Brady McGee, mortality is not the biggest issue.
It’s the fact that the number of pup releases is incredibly small. Yet, the opinions are mixed on this matter, since Pete Benjamin, the government field supervisor in NC, argues that the absence of releases did not affect the population decline.
Additionally, some arguments from NC landowners claim the program is ineffective due to the large coyote population. In 2014, wolf hunting at night was prohibited by law, but this made it harder to deal with the wild coyotes which are the main cause of deer deaths. The two species look similar, and it is easy to mix them up.
Southwest Problems and Mexican Wolves
Regarding the Southwest, federal managers get strong opposition from ranchers. The majority of ranchers believes wolves put their lives at risk. In 2018, a hundred cows were killed by wolves on private land. And in March, there were 20 kills. Landowners have noted that the birth rates of their calves was dropping. Additionally, elk hunters in Arizona and New Mexico face a lot of competition form the wolves.
Despite the risks, the Fish and Wildlife Service faces a lot of criticism from environmentalists. The majority believes that the service should release a larger number of Mexican wolf pups. In fact, they have filed a lawsuit against the current goal (320 wolves), claiming that it is not enough. Dave Parsons, the former leader of the recovery program, claims that the Endangered Species Act requires the government to take responsibility and allow the wolves to act according to their ecological purpose. If not, Parsons argues that the wolves will turn into “museum pieces” of the wilderness.