If at first you don’t succeed … change the parameters and ask for more time or money. That often seems the unofficial motto of federal officials, who rather than admit defeat in some quixotic quest, simply redefine the mission and the benchmarks of success.
Federal agencies and private advocacy groups backing the reintroduction of the Mexican wolf into parts of New Mexico and Arizona are tempted by that sort of “mission creep” at the moment, as they try to salvage a less-than-successful effort by expanding reintroduction boundaries and pushing back deadlines. But whether they can grow themselves out of their problems remains to be seen. Perhaps a larger boundary area for the animals will spell success. But as with other federal efforts to fix flawed programs by scaling them up, this could just make a bigger mess.
The reintroduction of the gray wolf in the Northern Rockies has been a stunning success — so much so, in fact, that the animals are colonizing other states (including Colorado) and a federal de-listing is being proposed. But the story has been less hopeful in the Southern Rockies, leading to a review of the Mexican wolf program. Expanding the reintroduction boundary is one of 37 recommendations being weighed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency also might opt to freeze the program where it stands, with about half as many wolves in the wild as the 100-animal goal set a decade ago.
Expanding the boundaries makes sense if a lack of room for roaming packs is the primary obstacle to progress. But there may be other practical limitations that can’t so simply be overcome — including continued resistance from livestock raisers and demographic changes in a once remote but now fast-growing part of the country.
“They need big country,” Terry Johnson of the Arizona Game & Fish Department said in a wire story. “How much bigger is where the argument is.” But big country is harder and harder to find in today’s West. And dispersing the animals over a wider range could increase the potential for conflicts.
We note that Idaho last week requested permission from the federal government to kill as many as 51 gray wolves that have migrated into the state, as a way of rebuilding elk populations that are down due to predation. More than 300 gray wolves have been shot for preying on livestock since being reintroduced into the Yellowstone area in 1995. But if Idaho’s culling of wolves is approved, it would be “the first time that wolves would be killed by (government) agents based on concerns over wildlife populations,” according to AP. This illustrates the difficulty and complexity of managing wild wolves in today’s West.
We don’t pretend to be experts on why gray wolves have thrived, while Mexican wolves have struggled. Perhaps the Northern Rockies are simply better habitat for the animals. Or perhaps the romantic notion that these animals can run wild in the modern West, though not fatally flawed, has to be modified to acknowledge that there are limitations on how many wolves the new landscape can handle.
Because wolf reintroduction has succeeded in one place doesn’t mean it can succeed everywhere. Perhaps a scaled-back Mexican wolf program is the right size for the region and for the times. That’s not defeatism, but realism. And how much better off might wolves and humans be if federal officials were driven by realism rather than idealism, and by the recognition that not everything is possible through federal intervention?