Wildlife officials drew a line at I-40 for Mexican gray wolves, but has it hurt recovery?

The Arizona Republic (Original) Posted September 18, 2021 by Lindsey Botts

As the state lead for the Mexican gray wolf recovery program, Jim deVos monitors the tracking collars of wolves roaming Arizona's high country. Each device emits a ping twice daily, which deVos receives at his home office in Prescott.

In May, a ping from a collar strapped around the neck of one young male wolf caught his attention. The wolf, known to the Arizona Game and Fish Department as M2520, had started wandering north from the designated Mexican wolf recovery area. The animal's movements caught the attention of not just deVos, but federal agents, conservation groups and hordes of wolf enthusiasts.

When the wolf initially crossed north of Interstate 40, according to deVos, the Game and Fish Department decided to wait and see what happens. In Arizona, the four-lane interstate runs from New Mexico, through Winslow and Flagstaff across to Kingman all the way to the California border.

Often, wolves stray north of the major thoroughfare only to turn around and head back toward the core recovery area. That didn't happen this time. Anubis, the name given to M2520 by a group of seventh-graders, stayed his course, roaming the Coconino National Forest, often meandering between Flagstaff and Williams, towns dotted with vacation homes and ranches. The managing agencies recorded the wolf crossing I-40 four times and Arizona Route 180, north of I-40, even more frequently.

The wolf's penchant for lingering near to what deVos refers to as developments was cause for alarm. At first, wildlife managers tried to scare the wolf off, away from the area. After that failed, they decided he needed to be removed. They tried to capture the wolf using a helicopter, but that tactic proved difficult in the area, which is heavily forested.

The Coconino National Forest — sparsely populated, rich with elk, and lacking competition with other male wolves — is an ideal landing pad for a wolf. The area is neatly tucked into a large stretch of wilderness that stretches from New Mexico up through Arizona to the Utah border. It includes the southern portion of the Kaibab National Forest, the Apache–Sitgreaves National Forests in eastern Arizona and the Gila National Forest in western New Mexico. It connects to the northern end of Kaibab National Forest via Grand Canyon National Park. Combined, the area is over 8 million acres of national forest and is part of the largest ponderosa pine forest in the world.

For Anubis, and wolves like him, the area is a vast expanse of potential habitat, the most ideal habitat for hundreds of miles. But unbeknownst to traveling wolves, once they cross I-40, they've entered a no-wolf zone.

The origins of the I-40 boundary
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the federal agency responsible for managing endangered species like the Mexican wolf. It designated the interstate as the northern limit of the Mexican Wolf Recovery Area and state agencies have vigorously enforced that border.

Built in 1957, I-40 divides the northern third of Arizona and New Mexico. On average, over 20,000 vehicles traverse its route every day. It drives local economies and serves as a major corridor for travelers. For many wolf biologists and advocates, it's become a major barrier to Mexican wolf recovery.

Emily Renn, executive director at the Grand Canyon Wolf Recovery Project, a non-profit organization based in Flagstaff, has been a champion of expanding recovery areas for Mexican wolves since 2009. By leading camping trips and working in local schools, her organization focuses on education and outreach to build public support for wolves.

For Renn and advocacy groups like hers, the effort to drive Anubis south of I-40, and into a single area, highlighted enduring complications with the current recovery plan.

"I think there are places where this kind of slow piecemeal approach to recovery and conservation might work," said Renn, a scientist who's lived in Flagstaff for 20 years and has followed the recovery program since its early days.

"But with wolves being such a controversial species, I think that just completely backfires on the public. They (wildlife managers) should follow the science and tell the public what the science is telling us Mexican wolves need for recovery," she said. "And it's a much greater area and much higher population numbers."

Biologists like Carlos Carroll agree. Carroll, who was a part of the USFWS Science and Subplanning Committee, has conducted studies that concluded several separate yet connected wolf populations need to be established in order for recovery to be successful. The 2012 draft plan he helped author proposed no fewer than three populations of at least 250 wolves each, totaling 750 throughout the region.

"You can have one quite large population, but there isn't enough good habitat in any one place to support that many wolves. So that's why you have to think about it as connected subpopulations," Carroll told The Arizona Republic. "I think that our analysis of 2012, and a number of analyses, has shown that there are lots of habitats in northern Arizona still."

Scientists in both peer-reviewed papers and the draft Mexican gray wolf recovery plan identified two additional areas north of I-40 as ripe for wolf recovery. Those areas include the Grand Canyon ecosystem, which encompasses the national park where wolves could live without persecution, and the southern Rockies into New Mexico. Both are characterized by ideal wolf habitat: low human densities, limited livestock ranching, and plentiful prey.

Several populations spread the risk of recovery, Carroll said. A disease like distemper might spread throughout one group, but a group in another location would likely not be affected at the same time.

A wider recovery area could also help ensure genetic diversity, something that's hindered Mexican wolf recovery, and help the species adapt in the face of climate change, say wolf advocates like Craig Miller, senior southwest representative at Defenders of Wildlife, who has worked in conservation for over three decades.

"Population ecologists are almost unanimous in their understanding that as climate change impacts the composition of plants and plant communities, wildlife will need to adapt by migrating both northward and upward in elevation," says Miller. "Particularly in the case of Mexican wolves, I think it's especially relevant and essential to consider when trying to chart a course for an animal that not only has the need for large, intact habitat but also is so genetically imperiled."

State sees problems with wolves too far north
Mexican wolves are one of the most genetically distinct species of wolves in North America. They were listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1976, with just seven captive individuals at the time. With such a small population, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided to focus on captive breeding and an initial reintroduction into the wild to save the species from extinction.

It wasn't until 1998 that the first releases took place in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests. By then, there were over 150 Mexican wolves in zoos across the country, all offspring of the original seven animals. As a result of the limited founding members, most of the wolves in the wild today, including Anubis, are in dire need of genetic rescue, according to work done by wolf geneticists like Phil Hedrick.

Michael Robinson, a senior conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity spoke more candidly.

"It's as if every single one of those wolves in the wild today is related to every other Mexican wolf in that same population, on average, as if they were full siblings," he said.

DeVos, the state Game and Fish Department wildlife director, acknowledges that genetic challenges exist, but state and federal wildlife managers have sought other ways to address a limited gene pool and none of them include expanding populations north of I-40. For now, the most widely used method of ensuring genetic diversity is a pup fostering program, in which captive pups are placed into wild litters.

Adding recovery areas north of I-40 could present a host of challenges, deVos contends.

"Well over 90% of their diet consists of elk," he said. The state agencies fear the herd of elk north of the rim is too small to support a new population of wolves.

He added that moving wolves north of I-40 is really a legal issue: "Wolves cannot be released north of I-40 simply based on the Endangered Species Act."

The most recent recovery plan, a product of complying with the act, outlines suitable areas for recovery and limits recovery to the south of I-40. Buthow the interstate became a hard border for wolves is less a result of pure scientific review, say scientists and advocates, and more a reflection of political might.

Following the creation of the initial draft recovery plan in 2012, state game agencies and officials expressed frustration with the northern areas identified in the plan. That fall, then-Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and Jim Karpowitz, then director of Utah's Division of Wildlife Resources, wrote letters to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Daniel Ashe, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director, vehemently opposing expanded range into the state, despite the recommendations of the biologists.

Shortly after, the USFWS disbanded the original science and planning subcommittee, which was composed of independent scientists, and recommended that suggestions for recovery areas be transferred to the full recovery team, which included non-wolf scientists, states and stakeholders.

Later that year, confidential documents were leaked by state officials on the recovery team, causing an uproar among ranchers and hunters, who advocated for limited recovery. Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch authored a newspaper op-ed condemning the proposal for including parts of southern Utah and northern Arizona in potential recovery areas.

The aim behind the leak was to thwart recovery efforts, said Jeff Ruch, former executive director for Public Employee for Environmental Responsibility, a non-partisan environmental watchdog, in a June 2012 letter.

"Members of the recovery team, including state representatives from Utah DWR, who facilitated these breaches of confidentiality, did so with the apparent aim of applying inappropriate political pressure on the recovery criteria development process," said Ruch.

The debate over 'historical range'
How did Interstate 40 emerge as the boundary for Mexican gray wolf recovery in Arizona? It involved two separate but related questions: First, where did Mexican wolves exist when they lived in the wild? And second: What do they really need for their recovery?

Wolf advocates say the habitat suitable for recovery is limited, so the wolves need to be able to move outside of the historic range. Some scientists have even argued that genetic markers show Mexican wolves lived far above the interstate and well into Utah and Colorado and should be allowed to return.

The Arizona Game and Fish Department has long wanted to restrict recovery to what it believes is the historic range of Mexican wolves. Jim Heffelfinger, a wildlife science coordinator for the agency, says based on his analysis, that range lies well below the interstate.

"In recovering endangered species, you normally have recovery areas, and those recovery areas have to have boundaries," Heffelfinger said. "I-40 is a human-described boundary, but it does a good job of delineating the northern extent of habitat similar to what Mexican wolves evolved in and where they were distributed."

In 2011, Heffelfinger was appointed to the Science and Subplanning Committee to assist with the recovery process.

His was the lone dissenting voice among a group of independent scientists who suggested areas north of I-40 were critical to ensuring Mexican gray wolf recovery success. That did not deter USFWS from aligning their recovery areas with the state's view of historic range when drafting a regulatory framework for Mexican wolf management in 2013.

That particular rule, called the 10(j) rule, relates to managing non-essential experimental populations of endangered species. It carves out caveats so that state and federal wildlife managers can manage species with fewer protections, which is especially helpful when trying to recover a controversial species like the Mexican wolf.

Earlier that year, federal wildlife officials, led by then-director Ashe, discussed keeping wolves below I-40. In a letter to Ashe following up on that conversation, Larry Voyles, then the director of Arizona Game and Fish, specifically asked the agency to commit, in writing, to removing all wolves north of the interstate.

The following year, a coalition of stakeholders, including ranchers and hunting groups, who have opposed expanded wolf recovery, wrote another letter to USFWS urging the agency to restrict recovery to south of I-40.

"If Mexican wolves must be restored to the landscape in Arizona-New Mexico, their presence should be restricted to historical range ... south of Interstate 40 to the Mexican border," read the letter.

Two years later, capitalizing on opposition to expanded recovery, the governors of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado sent a letter to USFWS, again urging the agency to limit recovery to the south of I-40.

"Our States oppose the expansion, release, and occupancy of Mexican wolves north of I-40 in the States of Arizona and New Mexico and into Utah and Colorado," read the letter. "The Service should ensure that any recovery plan or related federal permit, plans, etc., clearly and consistently reflect that recovery of the Mexican wolf will occur from a northern-most boundary of I-40 south into Mexico."

Defenders of the boundary continue to maintain that the process has been free of politics.

“The Endangered Species Act requires that species be recovered within their historical range. So, it's not a political decision of I-40,” said deVos. “The best available science, without question, says that Mexican wolves occurred in southeastern Arizona, southwestern New Mexico and south into Mexico.”

The Endangered Species Act, however, does not restrict recovery to the historic range for an endangered species, according to Carroll, the biologist.

For experimental populations of endangered species, recovery must start there, but it's not where recovery ends. Most endangered species are allowed to recover wherever the best suitable habitat exists.

“Basically, for (USFWS) to reintroduce a 10(j) population outside of historic range, (they) must determine that habitat within the historic range is no longer sufficient for recovery,” Carroll said. “Both due to human impacts on habitat, and due to climate change, habitat in the southern portion of Mexican wolf range has decreased and is likely no longer sufficient for recovery.”

The plan faces challenges in court
In January 2015, the USFWS published the final rule for the experimental population of wolves, expanding recovery but limiting it to south of I-40 and capping the U.S. population at 325 wolves. The official reason for focusing on recovery south of the interstate was the lack of an updated recovery plan, but the rule suggested that further recovery north of the interstate would be considered when the final plan was created.

"Because we do not have a revised recovery plan at this time to guide us on where Mexican wolves are needed to reach full recovery (i.e., delisting), we are limiting the revised Mexican Wolf Experimental Population Area to areas south of Interstate 40 in Arizona and New Mexico," the rule stated. "Future revisions may include an expansion of the Mexican Wolf Experimental Population Area north of I-40."

A host of conservation groups sued USFWS, asserting the final rule failed to further recovery. That didn't stop the department from moving forward with creating a final recovery plan in 2017 using the same principles set forth in the experimental population rule.

To the disappointment of activists and scientists, the agency decided to focus on recovery below I-40 in the final recovery plan, which primarily cited research done by Dave Parsons, a wolf biologist who has worked on recovery since its inception, to justify their classification of historical range. But even Parsons admits that the information used from over two decades ago is out of date.

"Back then, taxonomy was still largely based on morphological characteristics. The advent of molecular genetics was a game-changer in understanding taxonomy and distributions of subspecies," Parsons told The Republic.

"Today, it is well accepted that subspecies ranges cannot be delineated by bright lines on a map. And given the dispersal capability of wolves, it is now understood that zones of genetic exchange create a genetic mixing zone of a few hundred miles between recognized subspecies," he said. "What I wrote in 1996 was considered the 'best available science' at that point in time."

In 2018, a federal court in Tucson agreed that the 10(j) rule failed to ensure the recovery of Mexican wolves well into the future. The court found that the federal agency committed an “egregious oversight” in ignoring the dire warning of scientists that its 2015 Mexican wolf experimental population rule would compromise recovery of the species.

The agency was ordered by the court to review the rule. A draft proposal is expected sometime this fall, but the final version is not due until July 2022. Rewriting the rule could be an opportunity to eliminate the boundary, said Robinson, from the Center for Biological Diversity, the lead plaintiff in that lawsuit.

"Independent scientists have long recommended that the wolves be allowed to move at will and should only be removed based on their behavior rather than based on an arbitrary line on the map," Robinson told The Republic. “If a wolf like Anubis is contributing to recovery and not bothering anyone, it makes no sense that he had to be removed.”

Biologists and activists say the 2017 final recovery plan, like the 10(j) rule, is fraught with inaccuracies. A panel of independent scientists, commissioned by USFWS to review the proposed plan, specifically identified what they believed were the failings of the plan.

Among their concerns are that the agency misinterpreted the models used to set population goals, creating two disconnected populations instead of three connected sub-population, that the plan does not address genetic threats, and that hard borders can limit recovery efforts.

Yet the substantive recommendations of the expert peer-reviews were apparently ignored by the USFWS. To address these issues, conservation groups filed another lawsuit in 2018 aimed at forcing a revision. That lawsuit is still pending.

The best interest of the wolf?
Unless the rules change, wolves like Anubis will have to do the unlikeliest of wolf things: stay within a boundary. Further efforts to capture him throughout June and July were thwarted by wildfire. So in mid-August, after record-breaking monsoon storms snuffed out most of the fires, deVos and his team decided to move.

On the morning of Friday, Aug. 13, deVos got a notification that Anubis was just north of Fort Valley in the Coconino National Forest. He contacted the federal managing agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and coordinated the capture with the state agency. A field biologist, tracking and darting equipment in hand, was sent to seize the wayward wolf.

The scientist pinpointed the general area from where the tracking device relayed the signal and then went off on foot. He was able to approach the wolf within approximately six yards before tranquilizing him, a dangerous sign the wolf was becoming habituated to people, deVos said.

After passing a health check, Anubis was loaded into a crate and into the back of a truck. He was then driven and released several hours south, near the White Mountains in eastern Arizona, closer to where his journey began.

“In review of the totality of the situation, the decision to translocate the animal was made with the best interest of the wolf in mind,” says deVos. “And I think that's where the Fish and Wildlife Service and the state came down, that it needed to be moved back into an area where it had a greater chance to find a mate and be at less risk than it was in and around the housing areas.”

Since the Mexican wolf program started, the majority of wolves dispersing from the recovery area have traveled north. Four collared wolves and three uncollared wolves have been documented near I-40 in the last few years, said Renn, from the Grand Canyon Wolf Project.

For now, it looks like Anubis is on the move again.

"Anubis is already dispersing back this way," Renn told The Republic earlier this month. "I heard he was along the Mogollon Rim again in an area of forest he had traversed in April".

Lindsey Botts is an environmental reporter for The Arizona Republic/azcentral. Follow his reporting on Twitter at @lkbotts and Lkbotts on Instagram. Tell him about stories at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Environmental coverage on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow The Republic environmental reporting team at environment.azcentral.com and @azcenvironment on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.