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Speakout: The lobo doesn't belong in Colorado

By Michael J. Robinson, Special to the News January 9, 2004

The Rocky Mountain News' Jan. 2 article, "Wolves set to huff, puff, blow into state," and its accompanying sidebar mistakenly state that Mexican gray wolves may have originally inhabited Colorado. Though the taxonomy of wolves continues to evolve, one thing remains clear: Colorado's gray wolves were not the unique Mexican subspecies, Canis lupus baileyi. The highest U.S. priority for restoration of this animal, the lobo (or "desert wolf" in the words of pioneering ecologist Aldo Leopold), should be to Arizona's Sky Islands Ecosystem, where cool, forested mountains rise out of an ocean of desert.

"Whether the Mexican wolf made it into Colorado is open to speculation because a 'wolf was a wolf' to those who shot and trapped them, and they never differentiated between species," the article reported.

To the contrary, wolf taxonomy was originally elucidated by the federal agency that wiped out the species. That extermination campaign began in 1915 after wolves survived both state-sponsored bounties and ranchers' individual efforts to eliminate them. The last resident wolf in the American West was trapped in Conejos County, Colorado, in 1945.

Between 1921 and 1927, when all but a handful of wolves in the southern Rocky Mountains were being trapped and poisoned, the program in Colorado was coordinated by the state director of the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey, Stanley P. Young. In 1944, as the single most powerful official in the same agency, by that time renamed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Young co-authored the encyclopedic 636-page study, The Wolves of North America. This book included the first comprehensive examination of wolf taxonomy, based on several decades of careful examination of the skulls, pelage (pelts) and behavior of hundreds of wolves killed by the same agency, including those personally killed by Young.

In recognition of his achievements, the wolves that roamed over most of Colorado were named Canis lupus youngi, the southern Rocky Mountain wolf. Between them and the members of Canis lupus baileyi, which extended north only to the tips of southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico, lay two other intermediate subspecies. These intermediates (which never inhabited Colorado) and youngi are now extinct.

Baileyi came within five animals of extinction because, beginning in 1950, FWS sent poison and federal personnel to Mexico to organize with the same efficiency the extermination program that had worked so well in the U.S. Only passage of the Endangered Species Act on Dec. 28, 1973, led to the live trapping between 1977 and 1980 of these last five in Mexico for an emergency captive breeding program.

In 1986, Fish and Wildlife Service wolf expert Ronald M. Nowak looked at the proposed reintroduction of the progeny of those last five wolves. He suggested "accept\[ing\] baileyi as a separate subspecies as originally delineated" and urged federal officials to consider reintroduction at suitable sites in states bordering Mexico but "beyond its designated range, on the grounds that it could have occupied such sites naturally, if other wolves had not already been there, and, indeed, may have been attempting to do just that after the other wolves had been extirpated."

Hence, the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area into which Mexican wolves were reintroduced beginning in 1998. It comprises the Gila and Apache national forests (in, respectively, southern New Mexico and Arizona), approximately 80 percent of which are outside of baileyi's historic range.

On April 1, 2003, FWS codified a gray wolf reclassification rule that superseded a 1978 regulation that had assured wolf recovery would be informed by subspeciation. The new policy created a Southwest Gray Wolf Distinct Population Segment area extending as far north as Interstate 70 in Utah and Colorado, in which all wolves are listed as endangered. Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity and 17 other conservation organizations have filed suit to overturn the regulation, which gerrymanders Mexican wolves' original range.

But there is more at stake. The Endangered Species Act is intended to "provide a means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species depend may be conserved." Putting lobos in Colorado should not come at the expense of allowing them to recover in the habitats in which they evolved along the U.S.-Mexico border. The diminutive Coues white- tailed deer deserves the predator which graced it with keen alertness; the piglike javelina should not be cheated of the reason for its inch-long tusks and occasionally aggressive disposition.

Michael J. Robinson is a staff member of the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity in Pinos Altos, N.M., and is also a member of the federal gray wolf recovery team.

Copyright 2004, Rocky Mountain News. All Rights Reserved.

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