Eleven years after the Clinton administration launched an ambitious plan to reintroduce the Mexican gray wolf in the desert Southwest, the plan is in shambles — with dead wolves and cattle attesting to the failure of government biologists and bureaucrats to save the “lobo.”

Officials at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which administers the Endangered Species Act (ESA), originally projected that, as a result of their recovery efforts, some 100 wolves would be thriving in the area by 2006. But, today, the number of wolves in the designated recovery area in the Gila National Forest along the Arizona-New Mexico border is less than half that.  A disproportionate number of wolf pups die before reaching adulthood, and the life expectancy of the wolves in the program continues to decline.

The tragedy unfolding in the Southwest has many causes.  The ESA is a notoriously inflexible statute, made all the more cumbersome by the recovery plan FWS devised and implemented in the late 1990s.  Under the FSW plan, for example, wolves that stray out of the designated recovery area must be captured, put into pens, relocated, and released elsewhere in the recovery zone. The scheme has resulted in many wolves becoming disoriented and unable to adapt to life in the wild.  

Adding to the woes of the wolves have been conflicts with cattle ranchers.  Government policies of exterminating the creatures because of the threat they posed to cattle led to their near extinction.  By 1976, the wolves had declined to the point that they were added to the endangered species list.  When the recovery plan was launched in 1998, ranchers warned that the wolves would threaten their livelihood. Wildlife managers have been forced to kill over 25 wolves in an effort to keep them in recovery zones, and the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association estimates that wolves have killed 1,500 cows in the last eleven years.