Mexican gray wolves were perilously close to losing their fragile foothold in the U.S. Southwest when Friends of Animals Wildlife Law Program stepped in to give the endangered species a fighting chance to survive.
Those efforts paid off: For the first time since their reintroduction more than two decades ago, Mexican gray wolves in the U.S. now total more than 240. “In 2022, we recorded more breeding pairs and a growing occupied range, proving we are on the path to recovery,” said Brady McGee, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Mexican wolf recovery coordinator in a Feb. 28, 2023 statement. This marks the seventh consecutive year of population growth and a more than doubling in size since 2017.
In 2015, Friends of Animals joined other wildlife advocacy groups in a lawsuit that charged the FWS with failing in its duty to protect the Mexican wolf, the smallest, rarest and most genetically distinct subspecies of gray wolf. FoA argued that FWS’ flawed 2015 Mexican wolf management ruling arbitrarily limited the population, banned the animals from suitable habitat, and loosened provisions against killing them in the wild to appease the ranching industry.
The United States District Court in Arizona agreed, and ordered FWS to do more to protect Mexican gray wolves. Specifically, the Court called the agency’s allowance of a single population of 300-325 animals to be “arbitrary and capricious” and also said the agency ignored scientific studies that highlighted the need to improve genetic diversity among the reintroduced wolves.
Biologists report that there are now at least 59 wolf family groups living in the Blue Range Wilderness that straddles the border of New Mexico and Arizona, with 136 wolves on the New Mexico side and 105 in Arizona.
Giving us even more hope: Last year, 31 breeding pairs produced 121 pups, “of which 81 were documented to having survived to the time of the count, which is a very high survival rate of 67 percent,” said Jim deVos, Arizona Game and Fish Department Mexican Wolf coordinator.
Mexican gray wolves, which once numbered in the thousands in the Southwest, were killed off by ranchers and federal agents who hunted, trapped, or poisoned the animal they deemed threat to livestock. In 1977, the FWS and its partners initiated efforts to conserve the subspecies by developing a bi-national captive breeding program with the seven remaining Mexican wolves. The offspring of these wolves were reintroduced to the wild in 1998, marking the first time in 30 years Mexican wolves were known to exist in the wild in the United States.
“Mexican gray wolves aren’t out of the woods just yet,” said Jennifer Best, director of Friends of Animals Wildlife Law Program, based in Centennial, CO. “Conservation is about more than a single population number, and Fish & Wildlife Service remains accountable for doing its job, which is to protect endangered wildlife.”
The best available science indicates that full recovery of the Mexican gray wolf requires at least three connected populations totaling approximately 750 individuals. Wolf advocates call for the establishment of at least two additional populations in the Southern Rockies and Grand Canyon regions and further efforts to improve the genetic health of the animals. According to the Fish & Wildlife Service’s Mexican Wolf Species Survival Plan, there are approximately 380 Mexican wolves living in captivity in more than 60 facilities throughout the U.S. and Mexico.
The U.S.’s only native stork on firmer footing
A half-century ago, North America’s only native stork was on the edge of extinction. Fewer than 5,000 nesting pairs of wood storks remained, down from 20,000 or more just a few decades before. Rampant development and draining of Florida’s Everglades and Big Cypress swamps had decimated the large wading bird’s breeding colonies.
Today, the wood stork breeding population has doubled to 11,000 or more pairs and increased its number of nesting colonies and range, now extending to the coastal salt marshes and floodplain forest wetlands of Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas.
Given protection under the Endangered Species Act in 1984, the wood stork’s rebound was aided by a multi-agency recovery plan that focused on protecting its breeding colonies in the Everglades and creating new wood stork habitat in six other southeastern states.
“The wood stork is the iconic species that brought about the desire to restore the Everglades,” said Billy Brooks, fish and wildlife biologist and wood stork recovery lead for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “It opened a big area of research looking at the native species as indicators of the health of wetlands, water quality and quantity, and coastal resilience.”
Standing more than 4 feet tall, a wood stork uses a hunting method known as tactile foraging, snapping shut its long, thick bill when it finds a fish, frog or crustacean in the shallow water. Wood storks nest in colonies, building homes in trees on islands or emerging from the swamp.
The big bird’s recent resurgence has led the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service to seek to delist the wood stork from the federal list of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife. It’s a move that concerns some wildlife groups, who point out the wood stork’s numbers have been notoriously fickle, reports WUSF Public Media. The current 11,000 nesting pairs is still only half the amount before the wood stork population crashed.
California’s monarchs on the upswing
One year of progress for the monarch butterflies of the California flyway may seem like luck. Two years of rebounding butterfly counts across the Golden State strikes us as more than a coincidence and perhaps a sign of a welcome trend.
As part of the 26th Western Monarch Count, over 250 volunteers surveyed a total of 272 sites across coastal California and some locations in interior California and Arizona between Nov. 12, 2022 and Dec. 4, 2022, reports Palo Alto-based Sunset magazine. The final tally ended up being 335,479 butterflies during the Thanksgiving counting period.
What makes this such particularly good news is that in 2020, less than 2,000 monarchs were counted. That number rose to nearly 250,000 in 2021.
“A second year in a row of relatively good numbers gives us hope that there is still time to act to save the western migration,” said Emma Pelton, a conservation biologist at the Xerces Society and western monarch lead, in a press release.
California’s monarchs are part of a population that migrates from as far north as Manitoba, Canada, to overwinter in the highland forests of central Mexico. The bellwether species has been impacted by drought, wildfires, the loss of habitat and food sources—native nectar plants, especially milkweed—and the deadly effects of toxic pesticides, numerous studies indicate.
Despite this welcome population trend, some of the hundreds of lepidopterists and monarch aficionados who gathered in San Luis Obispo, CA, in January for the International Monarch Butterfly Summit expressed some concern, given the series of storms that have lashed California this winter.
“We hope it’s a minor setback,” David James, a professor of entomology at Washington State, told local TV station KSBY. “We’ve had two very good years now following the really bad year when there were just 2,000 monarchs counted at all the overwintering sites in California.”
Added Robert Coffan, chair of Western Monarch Advocates: “We’ve learned especially with the ravaging fires we’ve had and now these big storms that the monarch butterfly is a pretty resilient insect.”