Mexican Gray Wolves

The History and Recovery of a Subspecies


No one knows how many wolves still live in the forests of the world.  At one point in history, the wolf was the most wide spread land mammal on earth.  It’s great adaptability, second only to man, allowed the wolf to populate almost every ecosystem: living in Italy, Scandinavia, Iran, China, Mexico, Greece, and many other present day countries.  With their range spanning three continents, the wolf once enjoyed both freedom and relative security.  However, as the human population grew, and the myths and fear of the wolf spread, its population declined.  Today, the wolf’s range has been cut in half and many sub-species have become extinct.  Gray wolves now struggle with public misconceptions, dwindling populations and disappearing habitat.  Despite these daunting hurdles, there are places the wolf is making a comeback.  The United States has seen wolf recovery in North Carolina, Minnesota, Michigan, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, New Mexico and Arizona in the last two decades.  Perhaps the most remarkable story to come out of this era of preservation is that of the Mexican gray wolf, commonly known as the lobo.

This smallest of the gray wolves, the Mexican wolf originally inhabited Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and northern Mexico.  During a century of wolf persecution, two of the three subspecies considered to be Mexican wolves, Canis lupus monstrabilis and C.l. mogollonensis, disappeared.  Only scant remnants of C.l. baileyi remained in the wilds of Mexico in the 1970’s (MWRT 1982, pg. 4).  Through captive breeding programs, the Mexican wolf once again roams the pine forests of the Southwest.  They typically range from 1.4 to 1.7 m in length, 0.72 to 0.80 m in shoulder height, and 23 to 30 kg in weight (Bednarz 1988, pg. 5).  Though very similar in behavior to the other subspecies of gray wolf, the lobo typically lives in smaller, less defined packs due to limited resources (Bednarz 1988, pg. 17).  All information about the natural history of the Mexican wolf is speculation and subject to change because the opportunity to observe natural behaviors was lost long ago when they were extirpated.

Persecution and Extermination

Despite their previous reverence of this animal, the people of the world began waging a war against the wolf over a hundred years ago.  Early in the 20th century, the US government implicated a nationwide policy of wolf control.  Wolves were seen as pests that posed a threat to the continued safety and prosperity of the American people.  Consequently, Theodore Roosevelt, a man widely known for his environmental activism, declared the wolf as “the beast of waste and destruction” and called for its eradication (McIntyre 1995, pg. 114).  The government began offering cash rewards for wolf pelts.  Many wolves were burned alive or dragged to death behind horses (McIntyre 1995, pg. 430).  Their skulls and skins were piled high for victory photographs and to claim the bounties.  Most believed they were serving God and the United States by ridding the countryside of such vermin.  “In the Southwest, wolf eradication took on the force and demeanor of a crusade” (Burbank 1990, pg. 97) due to the difficulty of reliably raising livestock in an arid land.

In 1920, as the acting assistant district forester for the Forest Service’s Southwest region, Aldo Leopold proudly stated that the “New Mexican wolf population had been reduced from three hundred to thirty in just three years” (McIntyre 1995, pg. 189).  His anti-predator efforts lead to the solidification of the alliance between southwest hunters, ranchers and the government.  The same year, J. Stokley Ligon called for an international border patrol of trappers and hunters to deal with the “illegal alien” wolves dispersing from Mexico (McIntyre 1995, pg. 184).  Even as Mexican wolf numbers continued to plummet, the federal government hired professional wolfers to hunt down the most elusive wolves.  Here rose the legends of “Lobo, King of the Currumpaw” and his mate Blanca (McIntyre 1995, pg. 218), Old One Toe, the Spring Valley Wolf, Old Aguila, the Prude Wolf, Las Margaritas and the White Lobo (Brown 1983, pg. 156).  Vernon Bailey was the predominant wolfer in the Southwest, responsible for many a lobo’s death.  In honor of his work, the US Biological Survey named the Mexican gray wolf after Vernon: Canis lupus baileyi (Burbank 1990).  By 1970, few untouched areas remained in Northern Mexico for the lobos and the last carcass had been collected in the United States.

Through a systematic extermination of every wolf to be found, the United States government won its battle against nature.  The once populous Mexican gray wolf is now recognized as one of the most endangered land mammals in the world (California Wolf Center 2001). 

Redemption and Reintroduction

Since the deliberate decimation of the wolf, many people in the United States have come to realize the injustice of our actions.  In response to the growing public and scientific concern the Mexican wolves were listed as an endangered subspecies in 1976 (MWRT 1982, pg. 10).  By 1980, five wolves, four males and one pregnant female, were removed from the wilds of Mexico to start a captive breeding program.  These wolves are known as the McBride lineage and had grown from the original 5 to 107 individuals by 1995.  Two other lineages have recently been discovered, the Ghost Ranch and the Aragon with 25 and 8 members, respectively (California Wolf Center 2001).  In 1982, the federal wildlife agencies of the US and Mexico approved the Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan, that determined the management of the captive breeding program to maximizes genetic diversity and laid the foundations of a reintroduction program (MWRT 1982, pg. 28).

In 1996, the Final Environmental Impact Statement was approved for reintroducing Mexican wolves to the Blue Range Recovery area of New Mexico and Arizona.  The program called for male/female pairs of unsocialized Mexican wolves with redundant genetic value to be transferred to the captive management facility at Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge (FEIS 1996, pg. iv).  There, they would be released in 0.25 to 0.75 acre enclosures, fed road-kill wild game and would have minimal contact with humans.  The pairs would be allowed to mate and raise pups for at least a year for acclimation to each other and the environment.  Then, the pack would be moved to an acclimation pen constructed of heavy mesh at the release site for a ‘soft release’.  After a period of approximately two months, the wolf pack would be released into the recover area and monitored through radio-tracking collars (Seidman 1998, pg. 27). 

In the winter of 1998, the long held dream of releasing the descendants of the last lobos into the wilds of Arizona and New Mexico was realized.  “Three family groups of 11 Mexican wolves were released into the Apache National Forest of Arizona” (California Wolf Center 2001) on March 4, 1998.  Of these 11 wolves, only two survived the year in the wild – four were illegally shot, one was killed while attacking a family’s dog, three were recaptured and one is missing and presumed dead (Graham 1998).  Many people accused local ranchers of the killings, however evidence of a conspiracy was never revealed.  The controversy actually served to increase local support of the reintroduction efforts, spurred on by the ranchers’ pride and sense of protection for the wolves from outside threats.

Despite the dismal first year, the Mexican wolf recovery team pushed on and released 21 wolves into the Blue Range in 1999.  By December, 22 wolves were still running free (California Wolf Center 2001).  Since then, the project has met with numerous difficulties and has had to recapture many wolves.  However, as of November 2001, at least thirty-four wolves are on the ground in the Blue Range Recovery Area as well as in the Gila National Forest (FWS 2001).  The program is seen as a huge success considering the obstacles it has had to hurdle over the past 30 years.