You go, girl: Asha the wolf defies arbitrary boundary

The Santa Fe New Mexican (Original) Posted June 15, 2023 Op-Ed by Milan Simonich

Quick. Other than fur, what do California sea otters and Mexican gray wolves have in common?

Answer: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tried to impede the travels of both, either with a line in the ocean or a boundary in the desert.

Hunted relentlessly for their fur, California sea otters reached the brink of extinction. Government protections were instituted, but that prompted commercial fishermen to lobby for a ban on the otters in a coastal section of Southern California.

The restriction went into effect, not that the marine mammals noticed. Otters swam into forbidden waters to fill their stomachs with shellfish, prey coveted by businesspeople.

The “No Otter Zone” could not be enforced, at least not efficiently. Still, the restriction remained in effect until judicial rulings eliminated it in 2018.

Endangered Mexican gray wolves are another story. They remain under geographic restrictions in New Mexico and Arizona, the two states where they roam with limitations.

A management rule of the Fish and Wildlife Service permits the wolves to travel from the border with Mexico as far north as Interstate 40.

A wolf named Asha didn’t recognize any boundaries on her freedom. She journeyed from southeastern Arizona to Northern New Mexico, a jaunt of 500 miles. In doing so, she crossed the government’s prohibited zone at I-40 before being captured near Taos.

Asha’s instincts were better than the government’s. She should inspire its executive tier to help save the real New Mexico lobos by junking the zone where wolves can roam.

Like their larger cousins in the northern Rocky Mountains, Mexican wolves were nearly trapped, poisoned and hunted out of existence. The federal government in 1977 launched its effort to save them.

The initial strategy was to capture as many wild Mexican wolves as possible, breed them in captivity and rebuild the population. Complicating the objective is a small gene pool that causes worry about inbreeding.

In 1983, a total of 20 Mexican wolves lived in captivity. After a gradual bump in the population, 50 Mexican wolves were released into select parts of Arizona and New Mexico in 1998.

The number of Mexican wolves barely budged for a decade. It has increased to its highest point, though the population growth rate has slowed.

Government records showed 241 Mexican wolves in the wilds of New Mexico and Arizona in 2022. A couple dozen more are in Mexico, according to Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity. Captive Mexican wolves now number approximately 300.

These predators remain unwelcome in many quarters. Texas, once wolf country, outlaws the animals in the wild. Livestock growers and any number of politicians in New Mexico and Arizona were almost as hostile to the recovery effort.

Then-Congressman Steve Pearce, a Republican from New Mexico, in 2007 introduced legislation to end funding the Mexican wolf recovery program. He claimed kids as well as livestock were being put at risk. Pearce’s proposal was defeated, but that failure didn’t lessen opposition.

The barrier to wolves north of I-40 carries particular irony in New Mexico. The state’s flagship school, the University of New Mexico, has called its teams Lobos since 1920. But four-legged lobos can’t inhabit the upper third of the state, regardless of Asha’s effort.

More than 20 years ago, four independent biologists reviewed the Mexican wolf recovery program for the Fish and Wildlife Service. They recommended wolves be allowed to roam outside established government boundaries. Though the range was expanded after that study, the barrier at I-40 was initiated.

Biologists who did the study said, “Retrieving animals because they wander outside the primary recovery area is inappropriate. It is inconsistent with the Service’s approach to recover wolves in the Southeast, Great Lakes states, and the northern Rockies. ... [It] needlessly excludes habitat that could substantially contribute to recovery.”

Litigation on aspects of the recovery plan for Mexican wolves has dragged for years. Two lawsuits are active now. At issue in one federal case is whether government wildlife agencies are ignoring science to the detriment of an endangered species.

There should be a better, faster way to save one of New Mexico’s storied animals. It centers on executives of the Fish and Wildlife Service or U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland initiating a fresh public review of management policies on the faint hope of ending courtroom combat.

After five decades of trial, error, heavy opposition from the agricultural industry and modest gains, it’s worth a try. Haaland, a New Mexican, should take the lead.

Politics, money and legal briefs usually dominate stories about the Mexican wolf. All that changed for one week.

The government shuttled Asha back inside an arbitrary boundary, but not until she made news with the run of her life.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column. Contact Milan Simonich at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 505-986-3080.