As the Arizona Daily Sun’s recent editorial, “Wolf expansion plan needs more details” points out, Flagstaff residents can provide a significant voice in restoring this ecologically critical, charismatic creature to its rightful place in northern Arizona. The potential for wolves to return, as the Daily Sun reported back in 2007, has been considered for well over a decade.
The Mexican wolf is one of America’s most endangered mammals. With only an estimated 75 of these wolves in the wild, several management actions are urgently required for its survival. In mid-June, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) proposed to remove the gray wolf from the list of threatened and endangered species, except the Mexican wolf, which will remain an endangered subspecies subject to certain provisions that have proven problematic in the past.
Because the entire existing Mexican wolf population is derived from only seven survivors rescued from extinction, the agency’s proposal to allow direct releases of Mexican wolves throughout the existing Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area is absolutely critical. This action can and should be done immediately.
Twelve years ago a panel of four imminent carnivore scientists urged a revision of the Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan, laying the scientific foundation and imperative to enlarge the recovery area. The USFWS needs to quit stalling and complete a comprehensive recovery plan addressing the current plan’s shortcomings — and let the public see it — and at the same time allow wolves to be reintroduced into additional suitable locations as described above.
The Daily Sun’s editors brought up a good question: Why stop northern wolf migration at Interstate 40 as the USFWS proposes? There is nothing sacred and nothing scientific about the I-10 southern recovery area boundary, nor I-40 to the north. In fact, the USFWS suggests extending the recovery area south of I-10 to the Mexican border. However, the agency completely ignores the recommendations of its own Mexican wolf science team, who emphasize the wolf’s long-term survival requires connected habitats north of I-40, including the Grand Canyon region and portions of southern Utah and Colorado.
Wolves are legendary wanderers. While highways present serious hazards to all wildlife, wolves are capable of finding a way across. For example, one female traveled a circuitous route of more than 3,000 miles from Yellowstone to Colorado. She successfully crossed I-80 three times before she was poisoned in 2009. Closer to home, a female Mexican wolf traveled more than 200 miles and successfully crossed I-40. Sadly, a vehicle later struck and killed her in the fall of 2000, 12 miles north of Flagstaff on U.S. 89.
Wolves are social, family-oriented creatures that play a critical role in healthy, resilient ecosystems by affecting the behavior and numbers of prey species. The overabundance of grazing and browsing wildlife often results in degradation of forests, streams and grasslands.
For example, the wholesale slaughter of carnivores, including wolves, in the early 20th century on the North Kaibab forest and Grand Canyon National Park, precipitated an explosion of mule deer populations that dramatically reduced forbs, grass, aspen saplings, and other native vegetation. Elk, a recent migrant to Grand Canyon National Park and the Kaibab and Coconino national forests, continue to damage riparian vegetation as well as aspen and other native plants.
The recovery of viable wolf populations can dramatically improve the health and resilience of forest, stream, and grasslands. For example, the return of the wolf to Yellowstone discouraged elk from lounging and trashing streamside willow and cottonwood vegetation. Now, increased vegetation stabilizes stream banks while shading and cooling many sections of creeks and rivers. Increased willow and other native vegetation allowed beaver to return and create numerous ponds providing sanctuary for fish and other wildlife.
Wolves kill and harass coyotes, benefiting hawks and foxes that depend on rodents hunted by coyotes. By killing and scaring off coyotes that otherwise prey on pronghorn antelope, pronghorn fawns are much more likely to survive in areas dominated by wolves. That’s because wolves favor larger prey and generally leave pronghorn alone.
As the most recent polls confirm, most Arizona residents recognize the critical role wolves play in nature, and believe they belong in northern Arizona. While the deadline for requesting locations for public meetings has passed, you can submit your wolf recovery comments online at: http://www.regulations.gov/#!submitComment;D=FWS-R2-ES-2013-0056-0001
Kim Crumbo is conservation director at Grand Canyon Wildlands Council in Flagstaff. www.grandcanyonwildlands.org or (928) 606-5850.