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The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) introduced a proposal last year to remove gray wolves from the endangered species list. The move resulted in controversy when scientists and conservationists argued that the species has not yet recovered enough to lose protections. Although the future of the gray wolf remains unclear if this proposal is passed, the FWS is requesting that protections be kept for one gray wolf subspecies: the Mexican wolf. The proposal makes Mexican wolves the only gray wolf not to lose endangered status in the lower 48 states. The FWS will maintain protection and expand recovery efforts for the subspecies in the Southwest, calling this wolf “the only remaining entity that warrants protection under the [Endangered Species] Act.”
The subspecies’ continued protection is viewed as a positive move, but some other changes to the recovery plan have conservationists worried.
“Mexican wolves are critically endangered. At the end of 2012, there was a population count of only 75 in the wild in Arizona and New Mexico,” says Maggie Howell, executive director of the Wolf Conservation Center.
By the 1970s, this subspecies was extinct in the wild. They were bred in captivity and only reintroduced in 1998. Since then, the population has continued to struggle to survive. The Wolf Conservation Center currently has 13 Mexican wolves as a part of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association’s Species Survival Plan (SSP) Program and FWS Recovery Program. Over the years, some of their wolves have been released into the growing wild population, but Howell’s wolves have seen firsthand one of the biggest problems she says the subspecies faces: illegal killing.
“Two of our wolves, one released in 2006 and the other in 2008, from the center were killed just months after release,” she says.
According to Eva Sargent, Southwest program director for Defenders of Wildlife, the wolves are also suffering from inbreeding because the whole population was founded on just a few wolves. As a result, there is little genetic diversity in the group, and it’s made worse by wolves remaining in captivity for a long time.
“The overmanaged population is kept small, so they’ve lost a lot of genetic diversity. Genetic issues can be improved if more wolves are let into the wild from captivity, but that’s not happening,” Sargent says.
For the wolf to recover, scientists agree that there need to be three distinct populations of at least 750 wolves in the wild, but with these threats and some of the proposed changes, Howell and Sargent say we are far from reaching that goal.
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