A chance encounter with a now-captive Mexican wolf spurs reflection on how to keep wolves alive in the places where they belong

February 22, 2018

5 Minute Read

When the annual Mexican wolf population count came out earlier this week, one notable Mexican wolf pack was missing for the first time in 20 years.

Ever since 1998, when 11 founder wolves were first released in southeast Arizona, the Hawk’s Nest Pack has roamed the White Mountains and the volcanic plateau that flanks their high peaks. There, amongst the ponderosa pine savannahs and plentiful elk herds, the pack raised many young, including the first wild-conceived, wild-born Mexican wolf pup.

Today, only one member of this once-prolific pack remains. A single wolf does not a pack make. The reason for the pack’s decline can’t be fully known, but I’m fairly certain that the removal of another of its members in November 2016 played a prominent role in the pack’s demise.

That wolf was trapped, removed from the wild, and forever banished from his birthplace and his family. Federal animal damage control agents did this for one reason: he killed a cow. His good fortune is that because he is genetically valuable to the overall wolf recovery effort, his life was spared.

Today, instead of enlivening the wild Greater Gila landscape, he’s living out his days in upstate New York in a five-acre captive pen at the Wolf Conservation Center. The Center’s staff named him Lighthawk.

In an act of absolute synchronicity, he arrived on the same warm October afternoon that I did. I was there to give a talk about our vision of—and obstacles to—wolf recovery in the American Southwest.

mexican wolf lighthawk in cage john horning wildearth guardians

Lighthawk the Mexican Wolf is transported to the Wolf Conservation Center. Photo by John Horning.

The wolf was there both as refugee and hostage. Refugee thanks to a Species Survival Plan that allows genetically vital members of the species, who otherwise might be killed for killing livestock, to live for their breeding value. Hostage to a geopolitical landscape that is hostile to wolf recovery.

Conflicts with livestock are, far and away, the primary justification for wolf removals. Conflicts with the livestock industry are the main reason that the Mexican wolf recovery effort has not made more progress. As the program hits its 20th anniversary this year, two-thirds of the nearly 200 wolves removed during the recovery effort have been removed because of the political power of the livestock industry. Humans “removed” many of those wolves by killing them.

I’m grateful that Lighthawk is still alive, and I’m grateful for the vital work of the Wolf Conservation Center. Yet as I watched him slowly emerge from the crate into his five-acre pen, two thousand miles from his home and family, tears washed down my face.

Our job is to keep what’s wild, wild. Wildness thrives in a wolf’s presence on the land.


As oak leaves fell to the ground all around us, autumn’s shadow in my mind, I could not imagine new beginnings, but only the ending of a wild lineage. There, as close as I will likely ever be to a wolf, in the presence of such wildness, I could only feel the loss of wildness. I was overcome by sadness that we, collectively, had failed this wolf.

It’s not just keeping wolves alive that’s critical. It’s keeping them alive in the places where they belong. Lighthawk belongs in the wildlands of the Greater Gila with his Hawk’s Nest Pack mates.

Our job is to keep what’s wild, wild. Wildness thrives in a wolf’s presence on the land.

As my short time with Lighthawk has receded in my memory, my resolve has grown. I know that our job is to ensure that Lighthawk’s progeny, as well as many of the more than 350 other wolves held captive in pens and breeding facilities, have a chance to return to the wild. But the only way we give them that lifeline is by changing the geopolitical landscape of wolf recovery.

WildEarth Guardians is changing those geopolitics in five main ways:

  1. We’re working with willing ranchers, paying them to voluntarily retire their national forest grazing allotments. We’ve completed one deal and we’re currently working on two others, which include the territories of two different wolf packs that roam along the Continental Divide in the Greater Gila Bioregion.
  2. We’re pursuing two separate lawsuits that challenge regulations and a recovery plan that set an arbitrary population cap and draw artificial boundaries limiting where wolves may roam. And one lawsuit challenges the rule that designates this vital wild wolf population as “non-essential.”
  3. We successfully overturned the McKittrick policy, which allowed the Department of Justice to cast a blind eye toward wolf killers and let them get off scot-free. We’re now defending that decision on appeal in the Ninth Circuit.
  4. We’re advocating for an end to the use of traps, poisons, snares, and aerial gunning of all native carnivores on public lands, which will not only benefit species such as coyotes, foxes, and bobcats, but also Mexican wolves, which have occasionally been the non-target victims of traps and poisons.
  5. We’re pushing state legislatures to diversify the governance and funding of state wildlife agencies to ensure that decisions are more representative of the broad array of citizens in the American West who believe that wolves belong on our landscapes.

The Mexican gray wolf was first protected under the Endangered Species Act in 1976, the year of our nation’s bicentennial. At that time, wolf advocates suspected the road to recovery would be a long and turbulent one. Our experience over the last 20 years has borne that prediction out, and while we’ve come a long way, we still have a long way to go. With only approximately 115 wolves in the wild, we can’t afford to lose more wolves to intolerance and fear.

The Hawk’s Nest Pack that roamed the Greater Gila for 20 years no longer exists. The pack’s descendants still live, however, and I imagine Lighthawk will do his part to sire more young.  Their day will come. Let us continue the good work of creating stronger social and political conditions to prepare for those wolves’ return to the wild.

About the Author

John Horning | Executive Director, WildEarth Guardians

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