Thursday, February 9, 2017

Mexican wolf program: Bound to fail, but not because of ranchers

Mexican wolf release 2017
photo: White Mountain Independent
These are not words that pro-wolf people like to hear, but they need to be said: The Mexican wolf program will fail. It was fated to fail right from the start.

Contrary to what some preach, it's not because of ranchers, or obstructionist local governments.

No, the program has been doomed from day one because of a false premise of biology, and a false promise to the public.

Background

In 2014 over 100 Mexican wolves were counted in the wild in New Mexico and Arizona. In 2015 there were fewer counted, but that doesn't mean that there were fewer wolves. By the nature of the methodology the count does not include all wolves. The count is performed by fly-over. A spotter plane finds a wolf pack, and the wolves are then counted from a helicopter. Obviously there is no way to get an accurate count with this method. Wolves don't stand still to be counted, they run every which way. Some may hide and not be counted at all. Some may be counted multiple times. Some wolves might simply never be spotted by the plane, especially those that are outside the official Mexican wolf area (like the ones that are in my area).

Whatever the count, Fish and Wildlife Service biologists say the number of wolves is too few to ensure a diverse gene pool for the species.  Environmental groups, like Defenders of Wildlife, say the release of captive-bred wolves is imperative to the genetic health of the wild Mexican gray wolf populations.

I say that no number of Mexican wolves will ever ensure a diverse gene pool.

You can't make something out of nothing.

Every single known Mexican wolf in the US, both in the wild and in captivity, is a descendant of a very limited gene pool of captive wolves. I do not know what the genetic spread of the Mexican wolf might be, because that seems to be a big secret that the public is never allowed in on even though we foot the bill through our tax dollars. But I do know that you can't create something out of nothing. You can't create a diverse gene pool for a species from a limited founding population.  

This is well known science. It's true for animals in the wild, so it's got to be true for Mexican wolves. Take the cheetah, for example. About 12,000 years ago, a mass extinction event caused an extreme reduction of the cheetah's genetic diversity. Today the cheetah suffers from what is called the "founder effect". This is when a new population is started by a few members of the original population. Such a small population size results in reduced genetic variation from the original population and a non-random sample of the genes in the original population.

Genetic diversity serves as a way for populations to adapt to changing environments. Lack of genetic diversity can, all by itself, lead to extinction for that population. All it would take is one disease that the cheetah population is genetically unable to resist. Lack of genetic diversity means that if some cheetahs can't handle the changes in their environment brought about by climate change -- something that's a fact of life right this very moment -- then the likelihood is that none of them could handle it.  As it happens, it appears that climate change has already adversely affected the ability of wild cheetahs to reproduce and to hunt.

Why would Mexican wolves be more resilient than cheetahs?

If 12,000 years isn't enough for cheetahs to recover genetic variation why in the world would any scientist pretend that 40 years of human selective breeding will build genetic variation in the Mexican wolf? Build it from what? You start with x amount of genetic variation and that's what you have to work with. There isn't going to ever be any more.

"From seven animals you have a reduced genetic diversity to begin with... we won’t increase genetic diversity unless we magically find a new animal, which we won’t,” Sherry Barrett, head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Mexican gray wolf Recovery Program, recently said.

There are over 300 Mexican wolves in captivity, some in zoos, some running semi-free in preserves. All of them live in controlled conditions and receive regular veterinary care.  If there was any point to raising more Mexican wolves, it could be readily done. But what's the point?  All the captive wolves come from the same founding population. They don't have different genes. Breeding more of them won't save the species because there will never be more genetic diversity than there is right now.

If the head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Mexican gray wolf Recovery Program knows that the program is not going to create genetic diversity, what is the program for?  To raise more animals for zoos? Mexican wolves are at tremendous risk in the wild and it would take very little to wipe them out. Putting more wolves in the wild, as Defenders of Wildlife and others want, won't change anything.

Albert Einstein may or may not have said “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”.  It seems true no matter who said it.  So I have to ask:  Why do we continue to pour money into the Mexican wolf program that, purely on a scientific basis, is doomed to fail?  Isn't that kind of insane?