Can wolves be returned to the wilderness of Texas?

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by Rick LoBello, Education Curator

Less than 200 yards from my office I am often reminded of one of the most important missing links in the Chihuahuan Desert ecoregion. An apex predator often thought of as a symbol of wilderness, the Mexican wolf or lobo (Canis lupus baileyi), has been systematically eradicated from the landscape. Because of conflicts with the ranching industry wolves that historically were living in harmony with the natural environment were no match for wolf hunters and trappers until they no longer remained.

In the minds of many people here in Texas and other states, its ok for wolves to live in Zoos, but not ok for wolves to live in the wild where they survived for thousands of years before the coming of the European settler. It’s also important that we not blame the extinction of the wolf in Texas solely on the ranching industry. Everyone who eats meat is contributing in a small way by supporting agricultural practices that are not always managed in the best interest of the ecosystem, something that few of us think about.

Prior to moving to El Paso I was active in wolf restoration efforts in Texas during the 1990s when the Mexican Wolf Coalition of Texas with the support of state and national environmental groups tried to convince government officials to bring back the wolf to the Big Bend area. Big Bend National Park and adjacent state park and wildlife management lands were established to protect the natural environment and livestock ranching on those lands were no longer present. To many the idea of bringing back the wolf to these large protected areas made a lot of sense and efforts were already underway to return the wolf to national parks like Yellowstone National Park. With the endorsement of political leaders like the Governor Richardson of Texas, the proposal gained a lot of media attention. In the end stakeholders were not fully engaged in supporting the effort and interest in helping wolves return to the Big Bend turned to other areas of the country like Arizona and New Mexico.

Prior to the war against the wolf that started in the 1800s and continues to this day, wolves once roamed a large area of West Texas including the Davis Mountains region and the Big Bend region. Unlike the Mexican black bear that was able to naturally reinhabit Big Bend National Park from the adjacent mountains in Mexico after being extirpated during the early 1900s, wolf extermination efforts on both sides of the border resulted in the extinction of the wolf about the same time it was declared endangered on March 11, 1967. The last two wolves known in Texas were killed 50 years ago in 1970 when one was shot on the Cathedral Mountain Ranch south of Alpine and another trapped on the Joe Neal Brown Ranch located at the point where Brewster, Pecos, and Terrell counties meet. Fortunately for the wolf, a population of perhaps less than a hundred wolves remained in northern Mexico.

Today thanks to conservation agencies in Arizona, New Mexico and northern Mexico, wolves in the region are increasing and the combined wild population is estimated at around 200 animals. Here in Texas many believe that suitable habitat remains on both private and public lands. Unfortunately, the State of Texas and the US Fish and Wildlife Service do not have plans to reintroduce wolves to Texas and there have been no measurable efforts to gain stakeholder support or to work on a restoration plan to return them to the Chihuahuan Desert ecoregion. Wildlife officials often quote a Texas Parks and Wildlife Code which states that no one can release a wolf in the State which makes it illegal for anyone to release wolves into the wild, but there is no indication that the code was enacted to prevent wildlife officials from undertaking such a conservation effort in the future.

Potential wolf habitat in the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park.

Hope for the future – new Texas land buyers are committed to protecting the natural environment

On August 8, 1986 in a letter to Regional Director Michael Spear of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Executive Director of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Charles Travis summarized his opposition to returning the wolf in Texas by saying “there is already a history of conflict between stockman and the federal government in both of these areas (Guadalupe Mountains and Big Bend National Parks) concerning mountain lions that appear to range out of the park and kill stock on surrounding land. It is unlikely that Mexican wolves would be viewed any differently and these areas have limited suitability for that reason.”

Thirty-four years later are Travis’s arguments in opposing wolf restoration still valid? Perhaps not, many of the large landowners who opposed predators like wolves and mountain lions are no longer with us or have sold their land. A number of people are now buying up large parcels of land because they love the idea of owning large open spaces and want to help protect the environment. The King Land and Water real estate company refers to these lands as conservation real estate. On their website they describe large areas like this as “special lands for buyers committed to being good stewards of them. These properties frequently feature unique forms of flora and fauna, compelling live water resources, and, often, stunning, one-of-a-kind views.”

A growing number of people believe that wolves are not as polarizing to landowners in West Texas as they were 50 years ago. Former Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Executive Director Andrew Samson stated that he agreed that “the character of private landownership has fundamentally changed and that chances are good that some of the new landowners would have a different perspective on wolf conservation” than was the case years ago.

“The recovery of a wolf population, if it occurs, would be definite evidence of the restoration of Big Bend National Park to conditions as they were before the appearance of Europeans and cattle.” Roland H. Wauer, 1980. Naturalist’s Big Bend. Texas A & M University Press.

So what is the big problem?

Then what is the big problem with bringing the wolf back to Texas today?  There are large areas of habitat on public and private lands for sure, but in places like Austin, Texas where the headquarters of Texas Parks and Wildlife is located, there simply is not the political will.   Just the other day a respected government official told me that there is support among many biologists in Texas, but if anyone ever tries to bring up the subject they would get shot.   Is hatred for the wolf really that intense in Texas? In some circles yes, but in reality there are thousands of Texans living across the state who support conserving the environment and all its parts, including wolves.

So how do we get State and Federal government officials to come to the table to start a conversation on the subject with all the stakeholders?   Wolves are being returned to the wild in Mexico and could someday cross the border into Texas like black bears have for years. If that were to happen wolves would be protected by the Endangered Species Act and then the state of Texas would have little to say about it.

Last year the US Fish and Wildlife Service solicited comments from the general public on a Notice of Intent to prepare a supplement to an environmental impact statement for the Mexican wolf.   I took the opportunity to outline what I think would be good next steps for a possible wolf reintroduction program in Texas and stated the following:

I have been advocating for the reintroduction of the wolf to Texas since 1978 when my friend Roy McBride invited me to his ranch to see one of the wild wolves he caught in Mexico for the captive breeding program. You may have seen a video of that day on YouTube. The 8mm footage was included in two documentaries on the Mexican wolf, “The Gray Area: Wolves of the Southwest” and the “Right to be Wild”.

I am a member of the Sierra Club in El Paso where we have gathered with the support of the El Paso Zoo over 20,000 hard copies of letters sent to Texas Parks and Wildlife Executive Director Carter Smith and each of the ten TPWD Commissioners asking that they support a plan to return the wolf to Texas. They have disrespected the people of our City by not responding to any of our communications.

We hope that the US Fish and Wildlife Service will help us convince Texas to support putting Texas back on the conservation radar screen for a wolf reintroduction project. Areas believed to have sufficient prey base to support a small population of wolves, pending a comprehensive reintroduction study, include Guadalupe Mountains National Park and surrounding National Forest and BLM lands, protected lands in the Davis Mountains and the Big Bend Ranch State Park and Big Bend National Park areas.

Many of these areas are currently under tremendous ecological pressure from exotic species like feral hogs and aoudads. Bringing back the wolf to Texas could help control these species much more economically than methods like helicopter hunts currently being used by Texas Parks and Wildlife. Wolves can also be controlled to stay away from livestock areas using satellite tracking.

The Next Step for Wolves in Texas

The next step for the wolf in Texas is to assemble a team of biologists to survey habitat in West Texas that can support wolves. During this survey the US Fish and Wildlife Service and Texas Parks and Wildlife should meet with stakeholders who raise livestock near these areas to help identify livestock safe zones. Livestock safe zones are land areas where wolves will not be allowed to live. Buffer zones will be identified as wolf management zones where wolves may roam, but if they stay in these areas and do not move back to wolf reserves, they would be removed from the wild. After meeting with stakeholders and identifying potential habitat, the USFW and TPWD should assemble a team of satellite tracking experts to put together a plan to monitor and control wolves with satellite collars that can inject wolves with tranquilizers if they move away from reintroduction areas.

Let’s hope for the sake of wilderness and the future of humanity that the wolf will be given the chance to reclaim its rightful role in the Chihuahuan Desert.

The reintroduction of the wolf will be a polarizing issue in West Texas for years to come.  But in the years since wolves vanished, some of the best wolf habitat in Brewster and Jeff Davis Counties has evolved into something quite different: many large areas of the rugged desert mountain island country are now more dependent on tourism than on ranching.  The value of wolves to Texas may not just be ecological in nature; it could have a huge economic impact.   Ask the people connected to wolf ecotourism in Yellowstone where visitors who come to Yellowstone to see wolves contribute roughly $35.5 million annually to the regional economy.  Imagine the return of the “Grand Opera of Texas” to the dark skies of Texas. Imagine the return of the gray wolf.

Mexican wolf pack.

Photo credits:
Top two and cover, Rick LoBello
Third from top, Chad Horwedel, Wikimedia Creative Common
Bottom, Don Burkett

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