The one solution that’s not been tried

Female Mexican wolf

A female Mexican gray wolf, seen upon her release in Arizona in 1998 as part of the federal reintroduction program, eventually died in captivity. (Source: Arizona Game And Fish Department)

The Mexican wolf program is supposed to reintroduce wolves to the wilds of Arizona and New Mexico. In my opinion, the project been doomed to failure from day one, but that’s a topic for another day. What I’m considering today is the one approach to management of Mexican wolves that’s never been tried, the one approach that actually might have a good chance of succeeding. The one that’s never going to happen, not in today’s world.

That is, stop messing with the wolves.

Really. Leave them alone. Wolves have absolutely no problem breeding and spreading out in any area that’s suitable for them. The government’s given them the place, so now why not give them a chance to do what comes naturally?

Wolves are intelligent. They’re highly successful apex predators that live and hunt in close-knit groups called packs. In the wild, packs are stable hierarchical structures, with an alpha male and female that typically mate for life. Pups grow up with pack members teaching the young everything they need to know about how to be an apex predator. When they’re old enough, young wolves move out of the pack to join other established packs or create new ones. Mother Nature (time/natural selection) has cleverly created a perfect system to ensure species survival — genetic diversity and increasing population are achieved through the reward of a highly social life for pack members and a higher chance of survival for individuals. And intelligence. Did I mention that wolves are smart?

Mother Nature knows best. But for twenty years the Mexican wolf program has done it’s best to ignore the nature of wolves. For twenty years the program has done everything possible to create dysfunctional packs.

And people wonder why the program has been so unsuccessful.

Consider this: The very things that it takes to make for cohesive, successful wolf packs — packs being the very heart of wolf survival — are all disrupted by the management practices of the Mexican wolf program.  Maybe the reason the program has such poor results is because the program is driving the wolves crazy.

Breeding animals are chosen by the program for their genetics, instead of by wolves who lead packs. Here is a species where alpha pack animals usually mate for life — but the Mexican wolf program doesn’t give their breeding animals that option.  Some of them don’t even get to mate.  Semen is harvested.  Females are inseminated.

Wild wolves don’t examine each other’s genetic makeup before bonding.  They prove themselves within the pack structure, they lead by having the right disposition and skills, and they breed because they have proved their suitability through doing.  There is more to individual, pack, and species success than a biologist’s determination of ideal genetic structure.  Success in the wild depends on brains and the strength of a pack.

There are no packs for captive breeding wolves, so the wolves that are transferred to the wild from captive breeding programs have not been educated to hunt.  They haven’t been educated, actually, in any way to be normal mentally healthy wolves.  Humans can’t give that to wolves.  Only wolves can.  But the wolves are ripped away from any familial type relationships they might manage to develop.  If they are lucky enough they’ll be dumped into the wild with other “genetically suitable” wolves that aren’t necessarily pack members.  But they will still need to fumble their way to a successful hunt (for how do they learn to hunt in captivity?) in strange country they have not been raised in and for prey of a type they may never have encountered before.  And on top of that, they are trespassers in the territory of another pack.

Then, supposing they survive — meaning they haven’t started hanging around humans for a handout, or killing livestock or pets — the wolf program never allows wolves to gradually get wild.  No, they’re trapped every few years to be vaccinated, to have physical exams, and to have their tracking collar batteries changed if they’re going to be left in the wild.  Or they’re moved to a different pack that biologists have determined would be better, or taken back to captivity to be used for breeding.  Whatever happens to them, they are handled by humans, fed by humans, and the wolves get used to being around humans.  They lose their fear of humans — if they ever had any to start with.

Mexican wolf pup born in captivity, the result of artificial insemination

A three-week-old Mexican gray wolf pup, born as a result of artificial insemination.  \ ENDANGERED WOLF CENTER

If they’re born in captivity, they’re handled and fussed over.  They’re usually raised in facilities that let humans come and view them.  And the wolves view back.  What natural, healthy fear will a grown wolf have if it has grown up being carried around by humans as a baby?  What will prevent a grown wolf from seeking out the first “pack” they knew — the company of humans?

The worst thing that has ever happened to Mexican wolves is the Mexican wolf program.  

I just wish they’d put the whole program on hiatus for ten years.  Or forever. Stop capturing them to vaccinate, change collar batteries, give them physical exams. Stop raiding dens and planting pups that are the result of captive breeding programs.  Stop releasing wolves.  If wolves are trapped or removed from the wild because they are livestock-killers, or they’re nuisance wolves (meaning they hang around humans) then put them in captivity and never ever release them into the wild again.  Just stop it all.

It’s been 20 years since this fiasco of a program was started.  If wolves haven’t managed to thrive in the wild by now, maybe it’s because of the wolf program.  Maybe if the one approach that’s never been used was taken — leaving wolves alone to develop naturally — the Mexican wolf population might not just grow, but thrive.  Maybe if mentally healthy individuals were allowed to form functional packs without human intervention, livestock killing incidents would go down on their own.

Maybe all it would take for Mexican wolf reintroduction success would be to allow wolves to become wild and mentally healthy on their own.

But we will never know, because too much money is made off the Mexican wolf program. Agencies wouldn’t get their funding. The lawsuit-crazy enviro groups would have nothing to sue about, and couldn’t appeal to the public for more donations.  Follow the money.  It always tells you where the problems are.  RIP Mexican wolves, the least important factor in the Mexican wolf program.

US Air Force OK with destroying the Gila Wilderness

Gila Wilderness 1922

“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”  Wilderness Act of 1964 (Pub.L. 88–577)

The Gila Wilderness was designated the world’s first wilderness area on June 3, 1924.  If the US Air Force has its way, it’ll become a burning trash dump.

A Holloman Air Force Base proposal would create a new military operations area (MOA) over the Gila and Aldo Leopold wilderness areas of the Gila National Forest (and over into Arizona, too). The Air Force wants up to ten thousand F-16 flights per year (that’s more than one an hour 24/7), dropping  flares and chaff as they fly over.

The Air Force didn’t think to bother notifying the public* where the MOA is proposed (Grant and Catron County in New Mexico) about this idea.  Instead the Air Force held meetings in other municipalities nowhere near the directly affected area.

Pretty sneaky, if you ask me.

So what will happen if the MOA goes through?

You mean the screaming of jet planes constantly zooming over what’s supposed to be wilderness (“in natural condition” 11 U.S.C. § 1131(a)) isn’t enough?  Well, there’s more.  Such as the trashing of the forest.  Literally.  The Air Force wants to drop chaff and set off flares (military aircraft often combine chaff with flare dispensers), carpeting the forest with military debris and maybe just burning the place down.  How much chaff and flares I don’t know… maybe that is in the Air Force’s environmental impact statement (EIS).  But with up to 10,000 flights a year I’m thinking we’re talking tons.


Chaff is meant to confuse radar.  It’s made of millions of tiny aluminum or zinc coated fibers that are ejected from a jet and then are blown around by the turbulence of the jet’s wake and from whatever wind there is that day.  It can end up far from the release point.

Chaff fibers are about the thickness of a human hair and range in length from about a third of an inch to around three inches long.  The fibers are dispensed in cartridges or projectiles, so it’s not only chaff, but the debris from the containers (paper, cardboard, styrene caps, pistons, and other stuff) that ends up on the ground.

Once the chaff and debris is on the ground, it can be blown around by wind and updrafts from wildfire.  While inhalation is not considered to be a major issue (by people who don’t have to breathe it), wild animals will inevitably consume the chaff because it will be everywhere.  It will blanket the forest floor, the plants, and the animals themselves (not to mention hikers, bikers, hunters, and campers) with metal coated glass fibers.  And let’s not forget that these fibers and associated debris will also pollute the streams… water that ultimately will end up in Phoenix, AZ.  But hey, they have water filters over there, don’t they?

There have been few to no peer-reviewed studies examining the impact of chaff on wildlife and the environment, or humans either, for that matter.  Little is known about the breakdown of chaff in soil or in water.  It doesn’t take a study to know this:  given what chaff is made of, it’s not going to go away soon.

But hey, the Air Force is pretty sure that the stuff won’t hurt anything.

Flares being deployed from a F-16

Flares being deployed from a F-16

Flares are used to confuse heat-seeking missiles. Most are magnesium pellets ejected from tubes to ignite in the air behind the aircraft. The flares burn at temperatures above 2,000° F.   As hot as magma ejected from a volcano.

The flare pellets burn as they fall to the ground.  To the dry trees and brush below.  The place where there are no roads because it’s wilderness, so fire fighters can’t even get there unless they hike in.

If the flares don’t burn the forest down when they land, at minimum what their deployment will do is add to the feeling that there’s a war’s going on.  Jets screaming overhead.  Explosions blasting day and night.  Blinding lights destroying dark skies.

Bye by peace and quiet.  Farewell tranquility.  Too bad, wilderness.

Wildfire burning in the Gila National Forest

The future of the Gila Wilderness?

What could  they possibly be thinking?

I’m guessing the Air Force is thinking only about the Air Force.  They’re relying on people being so fearful about war that sacrificing the world’s oldest wilderness so fighter pilots have another place to train is an acceptable price.

I don’t know what they’re really thinking, but I do know that the decisions will be made by people who don’t value wild places.

Just think:  the Gila National Forest is where the endangered Mexican wolf is supposed to survive.  Where are the studies on the impacts on the wolves?  And what about the endangered spotted owl.?  And all the other threatened and endangered species in the Gila?   Let’s not forget the impact on the Cosmic Campground (the first International Dark Sky Sanctuary on National Forest System lands and also in North America, located between the Gila Wilderness and the Blue Range Primitive Area).  Has anyone bothered checking into potential damage to the Gila Cliff Dwellings from the vibrations of hourly (or more frequent) low flying jets and/or flare explosions?

No matter who you are, rancher, environmentalist, Continental Divide Trail hiker or biker, hunter, wildlife photographer, or just someone who likes to walk in the woods, it seems to me you’d be as outraged by this Air Force proposal as I am.

While I am not an advocate of petitions, for those who are unwilling or unable to take personal action there is a petition sponsored by the Gila Conservation Coalition at

Better yet, write your legislators.  Write to the Air Force.  Call them.  Email them.  Make a noise in this world.
Holloman AFB Public Affairs Office
Mr. Tommy Fuller
(575) 572-1831 ext. 5406

* Edited due to information received from Catron County Commissioner Anita Hand (District 1) and further research:  The Catron County Commission received a letter about the EIS too late to act on before the scoping period had closed (the Notice of Intent was published August 25, 2017; there should have been a 45 day comment period but the comment deadline was September 15, 2017).  Holloman airspace analyst Alan Shafer has stated that Holloman also sent letters to both Grant County Commission Chair Brett Kasten and County Manager Charlene Webb but Kasten said that he had no recollection of receiving any letter.  Grant County Commission did hold a special meeting to address the issue. but this was after the comment deadline  The only public scoping meetings were held by the Air Force in Carlsbad, Truth or Consequences and Las Cruces.  No scoping meetings were held in Grant or Catron County. [return to top]

Note also that the draft EIS is not available on the Holloman AFB EIS website.  If it exists somewhere, this writer sure can’t find it.  

Further reading:  Gila National Forest weighs in on Air Force’s airspace proposal