The Uncertain Future of the Mexican Gray Wolf

The Uncertain Future of the Mexican Gray Wolf

By Stephen Milak, Staff Contributor

The reintroduction project for the critically endangered Mexican gray wolf 1 took another step backwards when federal officials decided last August to resort to “lethal control” for wolf predations of livestock.2

In 1976, the Mexican gray wolf was listed as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act3 after it had been “trapped and hunted so rampantly” to near extinction.4 Subsequently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established a captive breeding program with hopes of reintroducing the wolves to their historical habitat range located in New Mexico and Arizona.5 In 1998, four Mexican gray wolves from the captive breeding program were released into the wild with more intended to follow.6According to estimates, there were 113 Mexican gray wolves in the wild by the end of 2016.7

An investigation following the death of four cattle in Apache County, Arizona concluded with blaming one wolf, Phoenix,8 a member of the Diamond Pack and one of many Mexican gray wolf packs monitored by the state.9 It was then that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services agency determined Phoenix needed to be lethally removed from the wild–the first time a decision like this had been made in a decade.10 Environmentalists are concerned for two main reasons. First, the last intentional killing of a wild Mexican gray wolf in 2007 resulted in a 24-percent drop in the Mexican gray wolf population.11 Second, environmentalists worry this will lead to a deadly precedent where wolves will be increasingly killed for preying on livestock.12Brooks Fahy, the executive director of Predator Defense, commented on the issue, saying, “here we have an endangered species being killed for supposedly killing a non-native species that’s being raised for slaughter…this is the definition of insanity.”13

This decision additionally comes on the heels of the New Mexico Game Commission’s revisions to cougar trapping regulations which expanded the use of leg-hold traps and snares on nearly nine million acres of state land.14 Much of the regulated land overlaps the Mexican gray wolf reintroduction habitats.15 Animal Protection of New Mexico and The Humane Society of the United States are challenging the new regulation in federal court arguing that “expansive cougar trapping…presents a mortal…threat to endangered Mexican [gray] wolves…because they will inevitably be caught in indiscriminate traps set for cougars… .”16 While there have not been any confirmed injuries or killings of Mexican gray wolves due to the increased use of trapping, it will be something to keep an eye on, along with potential reverberations after the killing of Phoenix.

On June 29, 2017, a draft of the long-awaited update to the Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Plan was released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for public comment with the final rule arriving later this month.17 Without any alterations from the draft, the updated plan would, in an effort to ease the burdens on ranchers and rural communities, delist the Mexican gray wolf from endangerment once the population reaches 490 wolves total between New Mexico, Arizona, and Mexico.18 The plan also turns decision making authority for wolf releases over to the states, thus abandoning all federal oversight.19 Environmental activists have criticized the revised plan in that the threshold number is “far fewer than the number necessary for a viable, self-sustaining population,”20 and that “states have a long track record of hostility toward [the Mexican gray wolf] recovery.”21

The future for these critically endangered Mexican gray wolves is largely uncertain. While the reintroduction program of the Mexican gray wolf has led to an increased wolf population in the wild, these recent controversial decisions and revised Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Plan could have devastating effects on the future of the population.

[1] ECOS Environmental Conservation Online System, (last visited Nov. 1, 2017).

[2] Michael Robinson, Wildlife Services Kills Endangered Mexican Gray Wolf in Arizona, Center for Biological Diversity (Sept. 14, 2017),

[3] U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Mexican Wolf Recovery Timeline, available at

[4] Sarah Schweig, The U.S. Government Just Secretly Killed an Extremely Endangered Wolf, The Dodo (Sept. 15, 2017),

[5] U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, supra note 3.

[6] Id.

[7] U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Mexican Wolf Recovery Program: Progress Report #19 .

[8] Joseph Flaherty, The Death of “Phoenix”: How an Endangered Mexican Wolf Met Her Demise, Phoenix New Times (Sept. 20, 2017),

[9] Isaac Windes, Environmentalists, ranchers trade barbs in killing of Mexican gray wolf, Cronkite News (Sept. 20, 2017),

[10] Susan Bryan, Endangered Mexican Wolf Killed Following Livestock Attacks, U.S. News: World Report (Sept. 15, 2017),

[11] Robinson, supra note 2.

[12] Bryan, supra note 10.

[13] Schweig, supra note 4.

[14] N.M. Admin. Code. Ann. §§19.31.11 (2017).

[15] U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, supra note 7.

[16] Jessica Johnson, Reckless and deadly cougar trapping practices begin, Animal Protection of New Mexico (Nov. 1, 2016),

[17] Bryan Bird, Reckless Plan Could Unravel Recovery of Mexican Gray Wolves, Defenders of Wildlife Blog (Aug. 9, 2017),

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Erin Ford, Newly-drafted Mexican wolf recovery plan, met with criticism, Grand Canyon News (July 11, 2017),

[21] Bird, supra note 17.