January 8, 2020
by Rick LoBello
Mexican wolves once roamed the wilds of West Texas for thousands of years, long before our ancestors crossed the Atlantic and systematically killed them in what can be described as an ecocide. Today in Texas they survive only in zoos. I took this picture of a male wolf in it’s new habitat at the El Paso Zoo. To all the people out there reading this who are saddened by all the news about animals going extinct, I want to offer you a once in a life opportunity. To all those people who say they don’t like seeing animals in zoos, this opportunity is for you too. Zoos are actively saving endangered species. Let’s get the wolf off the Texas endangered species list and return them to the wild. Join the Texas Wolf Pack and let’s return this magnificent animal back into the wild.
Returning the wolf to Texas
by Rick LoBello
Less than a 100 yards from my office at the El Paso Zoo every day I am reminded of one of the most important missing links in the Chihuahuan Desert ecoregion, a wild predator that we all know as a symbol of wilderness and as an important apex predator, the gray wolf or Mexican wolf (Canis lupus baileyi). Prior to moving to El Paso I was active in wolf restoration efforts in Texas during the 1990s when the Sierra Club and other environmental groups helped to gain public support for the return of wolves to the Southwest at the Apache National Forest of eastern Arizona.
Prior to the war against the wolf that started in the 1800s and ended around the middle of the last century; wolves once roamed a large area of West Texas including the Davis Mountains region and the area now called Big Bend National Park. Unlike the black bear that survived in great enough numbers in Mexico to eventually repopulate parts of West Texas during the 1980s, wolf extermination efforts resulted in the extinction of the wolf in Texas about the same time it was declared endangered (March 11, 1967). The last two wolves known to Texas were killed in 1970 when one was shot from the Cathedral Mountain Ranch south of Alpine and another trapped from the Joe Neal Brown Ranch located at the point where Brewster, Pecos, and Terrell counties meet.
Today we can learn much about the importance of wolves to the ecosystem by paying close attention to what is happening in places where they made a comeback. Predators like the wolf provide important ecological services in helping to control prey species like elk in Yellowstone National Park. If elk become too numerous, they can prevent the growth of certain plants. These plants, if not allowed to grow, can affect nesting sites for birds and food that other animals need to survive. Yellowstone illustrates a great example of the ecological value of wolves where their return has helped to restore willow trees, beaver and other species in the Lamar Valley.
The return of wolves to Yellowstone has also had a tremendous impact on the surrounding area’s economy. A study led by University of Montana economist John Duffield showed that visitors who come to Yellowstone to see wolves contribute roughly $35.5 million annually to the regional economy. Anyone in West Texas looking to see the economy improve?
In a letter to former Regional Director Michael Spear of the US Fish and Wildlife Service on August 8, 1986, Charles Travis, the Executive Director of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, 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.”
Many people believe that Travis’s arguments in opposing wolf restoration are still valid today. Perhaps not, many of the large land owners who opposed predators like wolves and mountain lions are no longer with us or have sold their land to people from cities who appreciate protecting the environment as it naturally occurred prior to the first Europeans coming to America. 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. Imagine, the return of the “Grand Opera of Texas” to the dark skies of Texas. Imagine, the return of the gray wolf.
Texas wolf caught in a steel trap (Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Photo). Prior to the extinction of Canis lupus baileyi in the wild, the last confirmed sightings of Mexican wolves in the United States were in 1970 when two wolves were trapped and killed in West Texas. One wolf was documented on the Cathedral Mountain Ranch approximately 17 miles south of Alpine, Texas and 64 miles north of Big Bend National Park (approximately 230 miles southeast of El Paso.
Cathedral Mountain Ranch
A second wolf was trapped and killed on the Joe Neal Ranch about 10 miles southwest of Sanderson, Texas about 60 miles northeast of the park.
April 4, 2015
by Rick LoBello
The other day as a young boy walked past the large map at the entrance to the El Paso Zoo he yelled out to his mother and brother and said “look they got wolves!” Little did he know that it is very possible that unless those of us who can make a difference today dedicate ourselves to making it happen, children in Texas will never experience wolves living in the wilds of the Lone Star State. Today Texas has thousands of square miles of potential habitat that could support a viable wolf population, in areas where wolves used to live.
Unfortunately before we knew any better, Canis lupus baileyi often called the Mexican wolf, was systematically killed by government trappers during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Today we know that wolves play a critical role in maintaining the ecosystem that we are a part of and it is possible to return wolves to their former homes. Here in the southwest thanks to a federal reintroduction project now underway in the mountains of eastern Arizona and western New Mexico, wolves are making a comeback just hours away from Texas. But why can’t wolves re-inhabit their former habitats in Texas? That is a long story to tell, but let me say for now what I have been saying for the past 35 years. If given a chance wolves can return to Texas, there are large areas of habitat available and the only thing holding them back is politics and government bureaucracy. If wolves can return to Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Colorado, Washington, Arizona and New Mexico they can also return to Texas. The big Texas problem in 2015 is an overall lack of leadership and passion for the wild. Too many Texans, including those in high positions who could make a difference, are too relaxed and disconnected from the ecosystem themselves. They do not understand the important role predators play in maintaining the biodiversity of ecosystems. And sad to say most do not have the guts to stand up for what is true and what is right.
Former Big Bend Chief of Interpretation Roland Wauer who went on to become the Chief Scientist of the National Park Service had this to say during the years that wolf advocates in Texas were trying to get the support of state and federal officials. Prior to the formation of the Mexican Wolf Coalition of Texas in early 1990, Texas A&M University Press published Wauer’s book entitled Naturalist’s Big Bend. In his book Wauer states that “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.”
When the Mexican Wolf Coalition of Texas called on Big Bend National Park to develop a reintroduction plan for the park Wauer stated in a letter to the Coalition on June 22, 1990 “I believe that reintroduction of Mexican wolves into the Big Bend country is both feasible and proper, and every effort should go into the program.”
Today Wauer has little influence on what happens in the park and park staff have shown little interest in publicly speaking out for wolves like many of us did when I worked in Bend Bend from 1975 to 1992. I’ll never forget Chief Naturalist Bob Rothe, Park Superintendents Jim Carrico and Rob Arnberger and Texas Governor Ann Richards who either spoke out on behalf of supporting the return of wolves to Texas or helped to carry on the conversation. My hero back in those days was NPS Director Bill Mott who made wolves a cause célèbre. Where are the conservation heroes working in National Parks today?
There is some promising news to report. Students from America’s High School in Socorro, Texas just east of El Paso are planning a Earth Day presentation on wolves to be followed by a field a trip to former wolf habitat in Guadalupe Mountains National Park. A few days ago I was encouraged by a rancher in West Texas who wants to help get wolf conservation back on the radar screen in Texas. I wonder how many other ranchers in Texas think positively about wolves. A facebook post promoting the Sierra Club’s Return of the Wolf to Texas Education Initiative on the Friends of Big Bend facebook page was also encouraging with over 41 likes and some positive comments. Thanks to Betty Alex who recently retired from the park for making it happen.
A new Texas Wolf Action Team offers many opportunities for people to get involved. For more information contact me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sierra Club Announces new effort to help return the wolf to Texas
Like and Share on Facebook – Return the Wolf to Texas Educational Initiative