The Mexican wolf once roamed throughout vast portions of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico. But, as human settlement intensified across the
Southwest in the early 1900s, wolves increasingly came into conflict with livestock operations and other human activities. Private, state, and
federal extermination campaigns were waged against the wolf until, by the 1970's, the Mexican wolf had been all but eliminated from the United States
In 1976, however, a new era dawned for the Mexican wolf. The Mexican wolf, a subspecies of gray wolf, was listed as endangered under the Endangered
Species Act of 1973, a recognition that the subspecies was in danger of extinction. The wolf was already functionally extinct in the Southwest, and
only occasional reports of wolves in Mexico confirmed its continued existence in the wild. It was now incumbent upon the Service, one of two federal
agencies responsible for administration of the Endangered Species Act, to lead an effort to bring the Mexican wolf back from the brink of extinction
in the United States. The question was, "How?"
Between 1977 and 1982, recovery of the Mexican wolf was jump-started with a flurry of activity. First, the United States and Mexico agreed to establish
a bi-national captive breeding program with several wolves trapped in Mexico between 1977 and 1980. The purpose of the breeding program was to save the
species from absolute extinction and to provide animals for future reintroduction to the wild. Meanwhile, the Service established a recovery team in
1979 to assist the agency in mapping out a recovery strategy for the Mexican wolf. The Service approved the Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Plan in 1982. Due
to the perilous status of the Mexican wolf at the time, and uncertainty if captive-reared wolves could successfully be returned to the wild, the recovery
plan stated that delisting may never be possible. The plan, therefore, did not provide a definitive recovery goal (criteria to down-list or de-list the
Mexican wolf from the list of threatened and endangered species) for the Mexican wolf, but instead provided an interim objective to focus and stimulate
reintroduction and recovery efforts. The prime objective of the Recovery Plan states: "To conserve and ensure the survival of Canis lupus baileyi by
maintaining a captive breeding program and re-establishing a viable, self-sustaining population of at least 100 Mexican wolves in the middle to high
elevations of a 5,000-square-mile area within the Mexican wolf's historic range."
As the Southwest grappled with the prospects of recovering the Mexican wolf, similar challenges were being faced in other regions of the country. Gray
wolves historically ranged throughout most of the United States, and extermination campaigns had taken place throughout the country during the early and
mid-1900s. The Service had listed several subspecies of gray wolf under the Endangered Species Act between 1973 and 1976, but later recognized that the
approach of protecting individual gray wolf subspecies may not provide adequate protection due to overlapping subspecies' boundaries and wolves' highly
mobile nature. Therefore, in 1978 the Service listed the entire gray wolf species as endangered, except in Minnesota where it was listed as threatened,
in the coterminous United States. The species-level listing (as opposed to the previous subspecies level listings) prompted a national focus on the gray
wolf, although the Service committed to continuation of subspecies conservation efforts, including the Mexican wolf, where appropriate.
Recovery efforts in three geographic regions of the country then began to take shape: the Northern Rockies, the Midwest, and the Southwest. These
recovery efforts were substantially different. In the Northern Rockies, wolf populations in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho had also been eliminated, but
wolves existed in healthy numbers just across the border in Canada. Therefore, the recovery strategy for this region of the United States was to
re-establish viable populations via wolves dispersing from Canada. Translocation of wild wolves to suitable habitat was also deemed necessary, given
that some areas appropriate for population re-establishment were thought to be too distant from the source population in Canada to effectively achieve
recovery (Northern Rocky Mountain Wolf Recovery Plan, Revised 1987). In the Midwest, a population of several hundred eastern timber wolves persisted
in a remote area of northern Minnesota and a small handful of wolves were also present in Wisconsin and Michigan at the time of the species-level
listing in 1978. The northern boundary of Minnesota was contiguous with a healthy Canadian population of wolves, and the recovery strategy centered on
the expansion of the existing Minnesota population and the establishment of one to two additional populations in the three-state area (Eastern Timber
Wolf Recovery Plan, Revised 1992). It was only in the Southwest, where wolves had been so thoroughly eliminated that a source population of wild,
free-ranging animals from which to build the recovery program did not exist, that a captive breeding and reintroduction program was necessary.
As the Mexican wolf captive program grew and demonstrated increasing success through the 1980s, attention turned to identification of appropriate areas
for reintroduction of the Mexican wolf to its historical habitat. An Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was finalized in 1996, in which the Apache and
Gila national forests in eastern Arizona and western New Mexico, respectively, were identified as appropriate areas for reintroduction. In March 1997,
the Secretary of the Interior signed a Record of Decision approving the preferred alternative of the EIS to release captive-reared Mexican wolves into
a portion of the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area. With substantial opportunities for public input, the Service subsequently published the Final Rule,
Establishment of a Nonessential Experimental Population of the Mexican Gray Wolf in Arizona and New Mexico, on January 12, 1998. The non-essential
experimental population designation for Mexican wolves allows for greater management flexibility to address conflict situations, such as livestock
depredations or nuisance behavior, than if wolves had retained the fully endangered designation. The Final Rule provides regulations for how the
reintroduced population will be managed by responsible agencies, and further, spells out public rights with respect to human safety and protection of
property from Mexican wolves on private, tribal, and public lands. A copy of the Final Rule can be down-loaded from our website.
On March 29, 1998, captive-reared Mexican wolves were released to the wild for the first time in the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area. Here, 11 vanguards
of the rarest and most unique subspecies of gray wolf in the United States began an historic journey - the journey of recovery.