Asha the Mexican wolf has again eluded game managers and roamed into Northern New Mexico, likely on her way to Colorado.
Although still referred to as the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the ESA is no longer the act that President Nixon signed fifty years ago. President Reagan signed a 1982 amendment adding Section 10 to allow James Watt, his Interior Secretary, to designate wildlife populations as experimental, denying them full ESA protection. Current Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, like her predecessors, delegates endangered species management to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), currently run by a former director of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
USFWS regards Mexican wolves as subjects of a scientific experiment. The boundaries of the experimental area are based on an outdated concept of “historic range” which denies the reality of wildlife migrations in a time of climate change and drought.
Asha is one example of the current global phenomenon of species migrating toward the poles as the climate heats up. As our local climate desertifies, we can now observe a roadrunner running past the cholla in our Eldorado front yard.
In the twentieth century New Mexico became a place for the federal government to conduct mass experiments in scientific killing. Thanks to the blockbuster movie, Oppenheimer’s Manhattan Project is now well known. Before Oppenheimer came Aldo Leopold.
In the fall of 1909 the newly established U.S. Forest Service hired Aldo Leopold as a hunter and trapper with a mission to eradicate wolves and mountain lions in Arizona and New Mexico Territories. Predator control was primarily the responsibility of the Bureau of Biologics, the predecessor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), which included a Division of Game Management and a Division of Predatory Animal and Rodent Control.
Assigned a few years later to the Forest Service Southwestern District Office of Grazing, Leopold wrote wrote a Game and Fish Handbook. In a January 1920 article written for the Bulletin of the American Game Protective Association, “Wanted—National Forest Game Refuges,” Leopold, by then an assistant district forester, put forward his agenda for hunters and ranchers:
To try and raise game in a refuge infested with mountain lions, wolves, coyotes and bobcats would, of course, be even more futile than to try and run a profitable stock ranch under similar conditions. Predatory animals are the common enemy of both the stockman and the conservationist, and the establishment of game refuges will further strengthen the alliance between sportsmen and stockmen and give new incentive against these pests.
A decade later Leopold literally wrote the book on Game Management, establishing a new area of study, now generally known as wildlife biology, to give predator control the appearance of science. Organizations of biologists and other scientists, notably the American Society of Mammalogists and the Ecological Society of America, opposed government predator control programs.
The current Mexican wolf population consists of descendants of the last wild Mexican wolves to escape Aldo Leopold’s efforts to drive them to extinction. The only way they can develop the genetic diversity they need to survive is to breed with wild wolves in Colorado, but the game managers’ experimental protocol forbids this. The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, which long opposed the Mexican Wolf reintroduction program, is working with USFWS to restrict Asha to the official experimental area. To make matters worse, USFWS has now classified the wild wolves in Colorado as experimental, and is in the process of designating grizzlies in the Cascades as experimental.
The New Mexico Game Department and State Game Commission still follow the model Leopold established in the 1920s. Recently the Commission unanimously approved the Department’s “bear-cougar” rule, which groups bears and mountain lions together in order to hunt them more efficiently.
Like Asha, we should look to Colorado, where the Parks and Wildlife Commission is charged with protecting wildlife, overseeing the state parks system, and providing sustainable outdoor recreation. Earlier this year Colorado Governor Polis appointed new members to the Commission with backgrounds in environmental and animal law and experience in protecting wildlife.
As Governor Lujan Grisham had the sense to veto HB184, which would have insulated the Game Commission from oversight by the executive branch, she has the power to follow Colorado’s example. The legislature has talked about reviving HB184, which would only worsen the situation of New Mexico’s wildlife.
A state department which teaches children to use firearms has no place in the modern world. The Game Commission serves no useful purpose. It is time to abolish the Game Commission and replace the Game Department with a department that protects wildlife.