For wildlife enthusiasts keen on spotting large mammals while on vacation, the Grand Canyon can be a tough place to do it. The canyon’s vast open space and checkerboard background mean only the most trained eyes can usually pick out mule-deer, mountain goats and mountain lions, while smaller game darts across the desert scrub visible one second and gone the next. Many times visitors to the park catch a glimpse of a large mammal and wonder ‘was that a wolf?’ And while the question is valid, the answer is most likely no.
Shortly after Theodore Roosevelt established the Grand Canyon Game Preserve on the Kaibab and Coconino plateaus in 1906, hunters began to kill predators to keep non-predatory animals safe. During the next several years hunters killed cougars, coyotes and wolves, essentially eliminating predators and leading to an explosion of non-predatory animals like mule-deer who were one of the wolves main sources of nutrition. In the early 1920’s, just a few short years after Grand Canyon National Park had been established, the wolf population throughout the park and surrounding region was nearly extinct. During the next several decades as more roads were built and the park’s visitation increased, the wolf population was eliminated throughout the park and many of the park’s surrounding regions.
The Smallest Wolf
Mexican Gray Wolves are the smallest wolf in North America- typically ranging approximately 5-feet long from snout to tail. The wolves’ coat is a blend of red, black and gray, creating a natural camouflage against the checkerboard southwestern desert. Like its cousins to the north, the Gray wolf played a key role in maintaining the large mammal population, feeding on mostly large-hoofed mammals like mule deer and bighorn sheep, which were prevalent throughout the American southwest and especially the Grand Canyon region.
Before European settlers moved west, the Gray Wolf roamed free across a majority of the American southwest living free of fences and established areas. Then in the mid 1800’s as settlers began to populate the arid desert and raise cattle, the wolves became a threat. Ranchers would sometimes find the wolves feasting on their stock and would shoot the wolf on site. This went on unregulated for quite some time and the wolf population quickly dwindled. In 1976 the Mexican Gray Wolf was listed as an endangered species on the federal endangered species act and goals were set to bring the population back to at least 100 wolves within a 5,000-mile radius.
Hatching a Plan to Save the Wolf
In 1997 a plan was introduced and approved to reintroduce the wolves into the wild. In 1998 13 wolves were reintroduced into southern Arizona within the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area extending into western New Mexico. While monitoring the wolves, researchers learned that their plan was successful when for the first time in 50 years a baby wolf was born in the wild. During the next decade illegal hunting continued along the wolves’ relocation area and as the wolves increased, up to 20 were illegally killed. The reintroduction into the wild was not always smooth and many famers and ranchers complained that the wolves were responsible for killing their stock. The goal of 100 wild wolves has yet to be reached and there is still a heated debate between both sides about the wolves’ reintroduction and expansion within the southwest.
The Grand Canyon Ecoregion
One major region targeted by scientists and naturalists to repopulate with wolves is the Grand Canyon Ecoregion. In a scientific report issued by Kurt Menke discussing the feasibility of the wolves’ habitat, it was recommended that through road closures and population control, the ecoregion would be able to sustain the Mexican Gray Wolf. The ecoregion is approximately a 36 million acre region of land extending from southeastern Arizona to southwestern Utah including Grand Canyon National Park. Through studies and reports it is believed the Mexican Gray Wolf can survive within the region primarily in central northern Arizona and southern Utah.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Says No to Wolves in the Grand Canyon
In July 25, 2014, the federal government published an environmental impact statement and proposed rule changes for the wolf population in Arizona and New Mexico. They rejected plans to allow the Mexican gray wolf population to expand north to the Grand Canyon, making the cutoff point at Flagstaff, Arizona. Wolves are allowed to roam up to Highway 40, but no farther North. Should wolves progress into the Grand Canyon, they will be removed.
For the first time, this plan allows wolves on private land but gives ranchers and farmers the rights to kill in order to protect people, livestock, and pets. Ranchers are currently compensated for lost livestock at a rate of 100 percent for a confirmed kill and 50 percent for a suspected kill.
Tracy Melbihess of the federal Mexican Wolf Recovery Program told the Arizona Daily, “We do not think that we can achieve recovery with the proposal we’re putting forward right now,” Melbihess said. “You need multiple populations and each needs to be of a size that ensures it will persist. The landscape for that does not exist south of I-40.”