The last, best place to release wolves in the United States might be right in our own back yards.
The Flagstaff-based Grand Canyon Wolf Recovery Project wants to allow the beleaguered Mexican gray wolf to migrate northward and establish packs on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.
Wilderness advocates contend the wolves are struggling, in part, because they are bottled up in the Blue Range Recovery Area on the Arizona-New Mexico border.
"We are expecting the Mexican wolves to recognize an invisible line on a map and live by our rules, rather than be the wild animals that they are, just struggling to survive," said the group's education and outreach coordinator, Emily Nelson.
The move has the backing of the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity.
UP TO 200 WOLVES
Scientists have identified a vast area that stretches from the Mogollon Rim to the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park as the last, best place for wolves in the United States due its low human and livestock density and abundance of elk and mule deer. Nelson said the area could support a long-term population of as many as 200 wolves.
"Wolves can disperse over hundreds of miles, so they tend to mix with other populations," said Carlos Carroll, a conservation biologist who authored one of several studies that determined the suitability of the Grand Canyon Ecoregion.
He added that wolves can cover as many as 50 miles in a day and half of all pups leave their parents by adulthood, looking for food and a pack of their own.
PRECARIOUS GENETIC HEALTH
Mexican wolves were reintroduced to the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area in 1998, after a population of as many as 10,000 was finally eradicated from their native southwestern range in the 1970s. The area is a remote stretch of wilderness covering parts of the Apache National Forest and the Fort-Apache Indian Reservation in Arizona, as well as the Gila National Forest in New Mexico.
"The genetic health of the Blue Range population is very precarious because they started from only nine wolves, which were captured in the 1980s," said Carroll.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service counted 31 wild-born pups in 2009, but it only found nine when it counted again in January. Carroll says that the wild wolves have become inbred and aren't having healthy pups because of wolf managers' refusal to release additional captive animals to increase genetic diversity.
In fact, the Arizona Mexican gray wolf population grew from 23 to 27 animals last year. However, the population in New Mexico plummeted by more than 50 percent, from 29 to 15 animals.
Nelson said that polls show most residents in Arizona and New Mexico are in support of wolf recovery, but added that a small group of residents and ranchers, particularly in New Mexico, are strongly opposed to the animals.
"They are opposing the wishes of most Americans who desire to see native wildlife and healthy ecosystems on our public lands and refusing to change their ways to learn to co-exist," said Nelson.
CHARGES OF INCOMPETENCE
Conservation groups are charging the USFWS with incompetence and playing to local political and ranching interests, instead of following a science-based recovery plan. The Center for Biological Diversity, a national conservation organization, has filed suit against the federal government for its failures to recover the Mexican wolf.
The initial goal set by the USFWS was to have 100 wolves in the Blue Range within 10 years. The agency has spent more than $20 million to date on the project, but at no point has the population gotten close to that number. The wolf population estimate topped out at 59 in 2006 and has dropped or stayed even every year since.
Conservation biologists think the population has been cursed because of a controversial measure known as Standard Operating Procedure 13, or SOP 13.
SOP 13 enabled government officials to kill or remove wolves thought to have attacked livestock more than three times. Scientists say that such transplanted wolves take a long time to re-establish their territory and start having pups again.
"Wolf recovery doesn't come with a handbook," said USFWS spokesperson Tom Buckley, who denies the measure has had a major impact on the wolf population. "There's a lot of social baggage that comes with the wolf."
Last November the USFWS abruptly revoked the measure, in a reported settlement with environmental groups. SOP 13 was a "major factor in preventing the wolf population from expanding," said Carroll. "We're glad to see there's been some support of change."
RANCHERS UPSET, TOO
Laura Scneberger, president of the Gila Livestock Growers Association, is upset with the Mexican Wolf program too. She accuses government officials in charge of the wolf program of trying to nickel-and-dime ranchers out of business.
"They're here and we're not denying that we're going to have them, but they've got to be managed," said Scneberger. "We've all lived with the wolves, but what we can't live with is the mismanagement."
Scneberger says that she and other ranchers are to the point where they'd prefer to simply put up with wolves on their land, rather than report the animals' presence and have to deal with government officials and environmental groups.
"Our groups aren't happy," Scneberger said, but added, "I think we could live with a 50 wolf count in two states."
OVERGRAZED BY ELK
Conservation biologists disagree, saying the Southwest needs a much larger wolf population to ensure the species' genetic diversity. Such scientists also say a healthy population of wolves could revive Arizona landscapes, which have been overgrazed by elk and deer in nearly a century-long absence of significant predators.
After being reintroduced to Yellowstone and parts of Idaho, the Mexican wolves' larger cousin, the gray wolf, has spread from its initial reintroduction area. Gray wolves are thought to have migrated back into Colorado and Oregon, where they haven't been seen in a generation. The Grand Canyon Wolf Recovery Project is pushing to have restrictions removed from the Mexican Wolf so such migrations are allowed throughout the Southwest.
"It's a challenge to get agencies to work together on a project that restores wolves to the Grand Canyon," said Nelson. "Ideally, we'd like to see the wolf be able to come to the Grand Canyon Ecoregion on its own from the Blue Range."
Eric Betz is the NAU NASA Space Grant reporting intern this year at the Arizona Daily Sun.