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How the U.S. and Mexico have teamed up on Mexican gray wolf recovery efforts

(CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

For over four decades, the U.S. and Mexican governments have worked to recover the population of endangered Mexican gray wolves. Thousands of these wolves once roamed from the southwestern U.S. all the way down to southern Mexico – but by the 1970s, only a handful remained in the wild.

A binational recovery strategy was created by U.S. and Mexican agencies in 2017 and renewed earlier this year. Last month, a pair of adult wolves was transferred from New Mexico to Chihuahua, Mexico.

Martha Pskowski of the El Paso Times had exclusive access to the wolf transfer and joined Texas Standard to share more about the U.S.-Mexico joint effort. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Where does the Mexican gray wolf population stand today, and what led to their population decline in the first place?

Martha Pskowski: Well, in the last census that U.S. Fish and Wildlife took at the end of 2021, there were around 196 Mexican gray wolves in the U.S. and about 40 in Mexico. And throughout the 1800s into the 20th century, these wolves were nearly eradicated, both through government campaigns and the spread of ranching across the West. By the 1970s, there were actually seven wolves that ended up being the genetic basis of the entire population that exists today.

That is incredible. So why do experts feel it’s important to bring Mexican gray wolves back to the wild? As you were mentioning, with the rise of cattle ranching and that sort of thing – I mean, wolves are predators.

There’s definitely been a lot of conflict over the years, and that continues. You know, Mexican gray wolves, they’re a really important species in the landscape. So when the wolves are returned, that allows other species that interact with them to also prosper. And when they’re gone from the landscape, that can throw a lot of other species out of whack.

Do the rising numbers suggest that these efforts by the U.S. and Mexico are starting to pay off? And are they joint efforts, or is each country doing something separate?

These are joint efforts. So U.S. and Mexican officials meet several times a year, and they have a joint breeding program. There’s also populations in zoos and then captive breeding populations. So U.S. and Mexico officials identify wolf pups that are born in captivity, but they can place them in the wild to be raised by wild wolves. And, you know, it’s a slow process. The population is not where it needs to be for this species to be taken off the endangered list. But it’s ongoing.

What are some challenges to gray wolf recovery? Are they similar in Mexico and the U.S. or different?

They are similar in both countries. There is still a lot of illegal killings of wolves. So those will be found either poisoned or shot, and it’s rare for those cases to be prosecuted. So that’s a big challenge. And also increasing the genetic diversity so this population can really be strong – that’s also being worked on in both countries.

It’s my understanding that some wolves are actually transported from the U.S. and released in Mexico. What’s the process of getting these wild animals across international borders?

So we had a chance to report on that last month. A wolf pair was identified in the Southwest for transfer to Chihuahua in northern Mexico, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologists captured the wolves in the wild. And then the pair was held at the Turner Ranch in New Mexico and then driven down to a USDA facility to get cleared to cross into Mexico and then cleared by customs and the wildlife investigative agency [Procuraduría Federal de Protección del Ambiente] in Mexico and then released about 100 miles south of the border in Chihuahua. And their hopes are that that pair will have pups next year and help grow the population in Mexico.

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Rhonda joined KUT in late 2013 as producer for the station's new daily news program, Texas Standard. Rhonda will forever be known as the answer to the trivia question, “Who was the first full-time hire for The Texas Standard?” She’s an Iowa native who got her start in public radio at WFSU in Tallahassee, while getting her Master's Degree in Library Science at Florida State University. Prior to joining KUT and The Texas Standard, Rhonda was a producer for Wisconsin Public Radio.