When did we stop howling?
When I went to visit my parents a few weeks ago, one of the first things my mother said was, “Bob, show her how Hannah howls.” My father grabbed the smallest of our family’s pack, the cocker spaniel dancing at our feet, and held her in his arms while she licked his face, tail stub wagging uncontrollably. I waited. My father tilted his head back, made an “O” with his lips and began to vocalize a series of long, high howls. Within seconds, Hannah – torn by having to stop licking his face – tilted her own head back to mirror my father’s and, muzzle to the sky howled with all her little might. They continued like this in unison until, amazed and crying from laughing, we made them stop.
Of course, part of our amazement at Hannah’s impassioned cry was that it was so unexpected. It is rare these days to come across a dog (especially a cocker spaniel) – let alone a human – that remembers how to howl. While the instinct may remain, it has been subverted, hidden deep in the recesses of the gene pool by decades of domesticity.
If you listen hard enough, though, this howl can still be heard in special places around our country – thanks to a fervent campaign to save wolves (now being threatened by the Fish and Wildlife Service’s premature delisting proposal) the calls of the modern dog’s wild relatives, gray wolves, echo through the Northwest forests, in the crags of the Rockies, along the shores of the Great Lakes and in the canyons of the great American West. It is here, however, in this last landscape, where the lonesome cries of the few remaining Mexican gray wolves, one of the most endangered animals in the world, is barely being heard over the howls of protest and mis-information by the anti-wolf crowd.
Last month, FWS released a final proposal to delist gray wolves throughout almost all of the country. While the Mexican gray wolf subspecies would remain protected, the Service released a related proposal that would severely hamper real chances for their recovery – especially when needless killings like the one we recently learned of continue.
The Service is proposing a series of changes to the rules that govern the Mexican wolf recovery program, but most of these changes seem to have been written in a vacuum – they ignore and in some cases contradict the best available science – even that of the Service’s own Mexican wolf recovery team (which hasn’t met since 2011).
A significant obstacle that the wolves must overcome to recover is their limited genetic diversity. To overcome this obstacle, published scientific studies and the work of the present and previous recovery teams indicate that new core populations, created by the release of more captive wolves into the wild, are essential. At least three distinct populations, established in different areas of suitable habitat with dispersal allowed between them, are necessary.
Instead of arranging for the vital immediate releases, FWS is wasting critical time rewriting rules that do not further recovery, and in truth, stall it. If action is not taken, this proposal may destroy the chances that the few remaining wild Mexican gray wolves have for long-term survival. What the lobos need, and need NOW, is the following:
A comprehensive recovery plan… Mexican gray wolves haven’t had an up-to-date recovery plan in 31 years (1982). The current recovery team has done extensive, rigorous work to determine what needs to be done to save the Mexican gray wolf. A new plan, based on this best science, must be completed and implemented.
Release of new breeding pairs into the wild… Numbers are important, but new genes are crucial. In order to overcome the challenges of a severely limited genetic heritage, many more of the wolves currently in the captive breeding program need to be released into the wild.
New core populations… Wolves are currently barred from a significant amount of suitable habitat (the FWS proposal makes it harder for the wolves to disperse into suitable habitat in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah – if any are found outside of the arbitrary lines on a map they will be immediately trapped and moved back within the set boundaries). The wolves need help getting to the suitable habitat areas in order to establish the new populations that are key to their recovery.
Best science tells the FWS all of these things and yet still our government is stalling on its commitment to Mexican gray wolves – when did it, when did we stop howling with them? Let’s start again; the Mexican gray wolf, one of the rarest animals in the world, desperately needs us to.
This post was written by: Courtney Sexton Courtney Sexton is a Communications Associate at Defenders of Wildlife. She focuses on issues tied to federal/public lands, wildlife refuges and renewable energy siting, as well as those related to a myriad species throughout California, Oregon and the Southwest, her favorite being the Mexican gray wolf.