The term “endangered” has an almost numbing effect in today’s world. Since first popularized in reference to snail darters and spotted owls in the ’70s and ’80s to current climate change projections that put the whole planet in the “endangered” category, many people suffer from a malaise frequently labeled “green fatigue.”
How endangered is “endangered”? If so many species are threatened-plants, animals and ecosystems-how to we go about prioritizing what is worth our time and money to “save”? Is it all a lost cause?
We have the privilege to work with the Endangered Wolf Center about 25 miles southwest of St. Louis (www.endangeredwolfcenter.org). Founded in 1971 by the late Dr. Marlin Perkins, famed zoologist and long-time television host of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, the center is the premiere conservation and breeding facility of many wolf species aimed at reintroduction to the wild.
Wolves aren’t the easiest sell to the general public. They are thought of as the menacing, man-eating beasts whose howls send chills down the spine of hapless victims. Our folklore and language don’t put wolves in the same category as cuddly koala bears. From Little Red Riding Hood to The Three Little Pigs, we are imprinted from childhood with images of “The Big, Bad Wolf” who can “huff and puff and blow your house down.” We see frightening films of werewolves who live to strike humans under the full moon (with apologies to the “Twilight” series of films). And much of our terminology is grounded in negative stereotypes. “The wolf is at the door.” “Thrown to the wolves.” “A wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
Wolves suffer the same public relations fate as their oceangoing colleagues, sharks. Both are apex predators in their respective realms that fill us with fear and leads to a “better dead than alive” mentality. But, wolves and sharks exist for a purpose in ways humans don’t feel a connection.
This gets us back to the theme of what’s “endangered.”
The Endangered Wolf Center is a critical contributor as an alternative to extinction for the Mexican Gray wolf. Thousands once roamed an area of what is now Arizona, New Mexico and northern Mexico. They had a distinct role in their ecosystem, feeding on the sick and old animals and keeping nature in balance. Beginning in the late 1800s, encroaching ranchers weren’t keen on wolves stalking their livestock. For over a century, we have hunted, trapped and poisoned these wolves and put bounties on their heads.
Sadly, by 1976, the Mexican Gray was put on the Endangered Species List and the last one in the wild was captured to protect the species in 1980. “Endangered,” in this case, was truly deserving of the word. It’s a sobering thought that a species so plentiful was essentially extinct in its natural habitat.
In 1998, the first Mexican Grays bred in captivity were released in Arizona. There are now a mere 42 roaming free. With a life expectancy in the wild of six to eight years, the mathematical imperative of replenishing the stock is beyond urgent.
We had the great fortune to be on hand as five eight-week old Mexican Gray pups were seen by veterinarians for a check-up and vaccinations in July. Five adorable, rubber-legged and big-eared pups who have no understanding that they carry the weight of the future of their species on their furry, 12-pound backs.
With any luck, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which partners with the Endangered Wolf Center, will decide all five are fit to be reintroduced in the wild within two years. With numbers so small, five healthy pups make a big difference to the ecological equation. But, the math works both ways. The same week we were applauding the new pups, a poacher shot and killed a reintroduced adult Mexican Gray in Arizona. Plus five, minus one. Simple math so precise that “endangered” is a label honestly earned.
From Eureka, MO.,
Photos by Tom Gannam and the Endangered Wolf Center