The Mexican gray wolf named Asha roamed for months around New Mexico and parts of Arizona.
She’s now in captivity with two male wolves at the Sevilleta Wolf Management Facility in La Joya, New Mexico where U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials want her to mate.
Her journey and capture is showing division between federal wildlife managers that want to ensure Asha stays safe from poachers – or people protecting livestock – and conservationists that insist a free roaming Asha is best restoring the Mexican gray wolf population.
A federal judge could ultimately settle the matter.
In 2022, the Center for Biological Diversity and The Defenders of Wildlife co-filed a complaint with the U. S. District Court of Arizona stating that the federal wolf management system does not follow the National Environmental Policy Act or the Endangered Species Act, which prioritizes natural habitat in addition to population growth.
The complaint directs the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to “explore more conservation-oriented alternatives” and use updated scientific research in relation to Mexican gray wolf recovery.
A judge is still considering the matter that could change federal policy and potentially release Asha back into the wild.
Southwest Program Director and conservation advocate for Defenders of Wildlife, Bryan Bird, said “Northern New Mexico and Valles Caldera where Asha was heading is really a perfect habitat for wolves, and has a low livestock grazing density.”
The Wildlife Defenders supports roaming for wildlife because of its ecological benefits.
Concerns about Asha’s safety arose when wolf trackers realized there were no additional known wolves in the area where she was traversing north of Interstate 40 in Western New Mexico.
Federal law clearly states capture
According to revised federal policy for Mexican wolf wildlife management, Asha was always going to be captured if she went across certain boundaries. The law states that “Mexican wolves that move outside of the geographic boundaries of the MWEPA are fully endangered and the allowable forms of take provided for in this rule to address conflict situations are not available.”
On Dec. 9 Asha was captured east of Cuba, New Mexico. She was then transported by helicopter to the Sevilleta Wolf Management Facility where biologists said “she is healthy and doing well.”
Asha was seen roaming in New Mexico days before her recent capture. She showed no signs of returning to the wolf recovery area on her own, which led federal officials to decide that recapture was in her best interest.
State wildlife officials said the capture could ensure that Asha is not killed.
“As much as the individual wolves capture the attention and the hearts and the minds of the people, we are really focused on reaching our recovery goals,” said Aisllin Maestas, spokesperson with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services. “How do we reduce mortalities and reduce conflict with livestock? These are the issues we are focusing on every day.”
Maestes said that federal officials are concerned Asha would mate with other non-wolf animals. She reiterated that if Asha is to mate, it would be better for her and the population health of the Mexican gray wolves as a species.
Because Mexican gray wolves are highly endangered, Asha’s search for a mate has given wildlife management at Sevilleta hopes for breeding and increasing population numbers.
According to Maestas, wildlife management is working around the clock to increase wild wolf population numbers. At least 242 Mexican gray wolves are counted in the wild by federal officials, per 2022 statistics. The 2023 count is expected to be released in January 2024.
She said that the wolves are counted each year through cameras, tracking collars, and helicopter searches.
Officials hope that #F2754, Asha’s official federal designation, will “have a partner, produce pups and contribute to recovery” efforts. Their goal is to increase the wild population to a minimum of 320 wolves.
Brady McGee, the Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Coordinator with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said that recapturing Asha gives her and potential future pups the best chance of survival and will help increase the Mexican Gray Wolf population.
Should she be allowed to go her own way?
Asha is being monitored in Sevilleta along with two wolves that she previously curved and didn’t want to mate with, wildlife officials said.
For federal officials to meet their goal of getting at least 320 Mexican gray wolves in the wild they will need one the males, both brothers, to attract Asha to mate.
“We are observing her to see which one she prefers,” Maestas said.
But she’s made her choice clear, supporters to release Asha argue, and should be allowed to find the mate she prefers in the wild.
Byrd and some wildlife advocates hoped that Asha might find a mate with one of the gray wolves roaming Colorado, which he said could more greatly improve the genetic variation of the New Mexican gray wolf subspecies.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials released three male and two wolves from Oregon into the wilderness around Grand Junction on Dec. 18. This follows a directive Colorado voters passed in 2020 to increase the wolf population in the region.
“I think we’re all really disappointed right now,” Bird said. “There are tools available for peaceful coexistence for predators at the top of the food chain.”
He said that if people are more educated about wolves, it will prevent future problems.
It is illegal to kill a wolf in New Mexico, penalties can include a $50,000 fine and jail time.
Maestas defends Asha’s capture and said the management program in Sevilleta has a successful track record “increasing the health and genetic diversity of the wolf population in New Mexico and Northern Arizona.”
Federal officials do plan to relocate Asha again in the spring or summer next year, hopefully with her pups, Maestas said.
Bird, however, argued that current management rules impede wolves’ natural instincts in many cases. “Down to the fish, birds, and plant life,” he argued, animals need to be given space to follow those instincts to make a beneficial impact to ecosystems.
“The issue really is allowing them more habitat range into and not artificially or politically limiting them,” he said.
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