Could the Mexican Gray Wolf – Source of Fascination and Hostility – Return to the West Texas Wilds?

In far-West Texas, there is strong resistance to Mexican Wolf reintroductions. This is based on unwarranted assumptions about their danger to humans and livestock. Ranching can be adapted to co-exist with the Mexican Grey Wolf, which is a smaller version of its Northern cousin found in Montana and Wyoming. The Mexican Wolf is not a danger to people – who in any case are armed. Wolves would help wild species, like pronghorn by reducing coyotes, the main predator of fawns. Wolves could also help control CWD by removing infected deer and elk. For uncounted thousands of years, wolves have helped the health of wildlife and habitat, and could do so again. Let us find a way to coexist with these wonderful animals.

NOTE: this article below is from Marfa Public Radio 93.5 FM and can be found here.

Lobo – the wolf. From Monahans to El Paso, the words are inscribed into West Texas – in place names, in team mascots. But the reality they evoke is almost unimaginable – that lobos, gray wolves, once roamed this land.

The last wolves in West Texas were killed in 1970. By the end of that decade, the Mexican gray wolf was extinct in the wild.

But the animal has endured, largely thanks to zoos. For one El Paso Zoo staffer, returning wolves to the West Texas wilds is a passion. He says that reintroduction here would require the support of state officials, and West Texas landowners and citizens.

The gray wolf – canis lupus – was once a dominant predator across North America. Texas was home to multiple sub-species. The Mexican gray wolf ranged from the Llano Estacado to present-day Arizona and northern Mexico.

But the relationship between wolves and pastoral communities has always been fraught, and as the livestock industry moved west, wolves were targeted. In 1915 alone, more than 900 lobos were killed in Arizona and New Mexico.

In Texas, the last two were killed in 1970 – one south of Alpine, one southwest of Sanderson.

In 1976, the animal was listed as endangered. Roy McBride, a legendary Alpine trapper, was commissioned by U.S. Fish and Wildlife to travel to Mexico – to see if he could trap lobos.

Rick LoBello is the El Paso Zoo’s education curator. In 1978, he was a Big Bend National Park ranger, He got a call from McBride, a former Sul Ross classmate.

“One day he called me to his ranch and said, ‘Rick, I want to show you something,’” LoBell said, “and I saw one of the wolves he had captured for the initial breeding program. It was at the moment when I saw that wolf – and I didn’t take video, I took 8mm film – when I saw that wolf, I thought, ‘I can’t believe what I’m seeing here.’ I didn’t even know the Mexican wolf existed.”

McBride succeeded in capturing just five wolves. But, along with several captive animals, they’re the forebears of the surviving lobos.

Zoos led the way in a breeding program. Lobos came to the El Paso Zoo in 1994. Today, the zoo holds older wolves, past the breeding age. But in a new exhibit that’s currently under construction, wolf litters may be born here.

In 1998, Fish and Wildlife began to reintroduce lobos in Arizona and New Mexico. Wolves can and do kill cattle, and the project met fierce opposition from many ranchers. Today, with wild lobo numbers just above 100, that opposition continues.

The El Paso Zoo has supported reintroduction. Carrie Trudeau is among zoo staffers who’ve helped build fences in Arizona designed to reduce wolf-cattle encounters.

After one long workday, the laborers gathered around a campfire.

“Then we were greeted by the sound of the wolf pack,” Trudeau said. “We could hear the yipping and howling. And that was really a shot through the heart. It was haunting. You get chills through your body – you realize that all hope is not lost, that we still have a chance to bring this very important species back.”

The federal government has led reintroduction elsewhere. But here, LoBello said, Texas Parks & Wildlife would have to lead. And private landowners would need to buy in.

Any West Texas wolf population would be small. But LoBello points to black bears, which have returned to Big Bend, and now thrive even in harsh desert.

LoBello notes that in Yellowstone, reintroduced wolves have thinned elk populations, leading to a more balanced and robust ecosystem. They’ve also generated millions in eco-tourism.

Here, Big Bend’s protected lands could be a place to start, he said.

Wolves inspire both intense fascination, and intense hostility. LoBello notes they were wiped out before their role here was understood.

“There is habitat there that will work for a small population,” LoBello said of the Big Bend region, “and they can sustain themselves if they’re given a chance. They might surprise us all. We might find out there are things they’re going to do to help maintain the biological integrity of the ecosystem that we never thought of. We won’t know that till we get them back in the wild and can study them.”

Ultimately, whether the lobos’ howls return is a decision for the people of West Texas.

Ranching, wildlife management, finance, oil & gas, real estate development and management.
  • LoBello notes that in Yellowstone, reintroduced wolves have thinned elk populations, leading to a more balanced and robust ecosystem…….I don’t know how balanced the ecosystem is up there when the “reintroduced wolves” (which are from Canada & not the native Grey Wolf that we had in these areas) when the Canadian Wolves (bigger, more prolific breeders than the Native wolf & far less afraid of humans than the native wolves were) have killed many elk just to kill them. They have no issues going after livestock or pets, they have been a HUGE problem to ranchers in Montana & Idaho, to name just two. They weren’t supposed to travel South in the state of Idaho (according to authorities), so any sightings of said ‘non-existent’ Canadian Wolf has been denied & just said to be an abandoned dog, which can be killed if it’s caught chasing livestock.

    I think if Texas has a chance to reintroduce a NATIVE species back into the wild, then the ranchers need to suck it up & learn how to deal with sharing “their” land with those who actually naturally lived there long before it.

    If the Mexican Grey wolf is anything like their “northern” cousins, then they should not go after their cattle unless their natural food (rabbits, mice, etc) is scarce. And if the powers that be were smart…they’d make sure they reintroduced the grey wolf, in a highly populated area of their natural diet…and not near cattle.

    Ranchers need to relearn how to live with nature instead of trying to take control of it.

    This is just my opinion of course, from seeing the damage that the Canadian Wolf (re)introduction has caused over the years, the “wipe out” of the Native Grey wolf after the Canadian population grew & talking to ranchers that have to deal with those Canadian Wolves, they didn’t have the these issues with the Grey Wolf.

    • If you will look under the tag ‘wolves’ on this blog you will find 50-or-so posts on this topic.

      Not all wolves are the same: The Mexican Wolf is not a Timber Wolf. Not as large, numerous or dangerous. I find the taxonomy very confusing as Timber Wolves, Mexican Wolves (extinct)Buffalo Wolves, Great Danes, Labrador Retrievers and Chihuahuas are all one species. This muddies the ‘native’ – ‘non-native’ definitions.

      There is an understandable cultural memory/fear of wolves in such places as Russia and Canada, especially among groups who lived in isolation before firearms, or those that were denied firearms by governments including Czarists and Communists. The big Timber Wolves hunted and killed people in these situations. Here is a helpful analysis of the wolf debate by Valerius Geist, the great Canadian elk and deer expert. Like you he is thinking about Canadian Wolves in particular.

      “When Do Wolves Become Dangerous to Humans?

      The reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone has had an indisputably positive effect on animals and habitat. Wolf reintroductions are a good idea – not because of animal rights – but because desert grasslands need keystone grazers (or cattle as a substitute), lots of prey and lots of predators. That is just a physiological fact and when all three are present, there is lots more for everything – including livestock – to eat.

      The Mexican Wolf is small, few in number, and where cattle are grazed in bunched herds, not a threat to livestock and certainly not to people. Everyone has guns to deal with dangerous animals. Wolves are smart and avoid danger. In my opinion, we should and can engineer our cattle practices to accommodate them in the unpopulated areas. As just one benefit: Wolves would control coyotes and this would help pronghorn. They would also help limit the spread of CWD by removing weak animals long before they become symptomatic. Where they are a danger they should be removed – as individuals not as a species.

      But I have many friends who see Mexican Wolf reintroductions not so much as a danger but, as an example of Federal intrusion: They have very strong feelings, I understand where they are coming from politically. But their position harms land and habitat.

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

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