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.
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.