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Wildlife Needs Wild Lands

Wildlife Needs Wild Lands
By Mark Allison, Executive Director

I’m frequently asked why we aren’t directly involved in protecting species. There is certainly a need, which we see, for example, from sanctioned coyote killing contests and the New Mexico State Game Commission’s recent vote to allow mountain lion trapping on private land without a permit and on 9 million acres of state trust land at the request of the State Land Commissioner.  

And certainly our members, staff, and board have strong, if not unanimous, feelings on wildlife issues, and it is oftentimes difficult not to jump into the fray.

However, as the state’s only homegrown, statewide group organized exclusively for the purpose of protecting wilderness, we have concluded that we add the most value by keeping laser-focused on land conservation and the protection of roadless and Wilderness areas.  

The designation of a new Wilderness area requires an act of Congress. To be successful, we must generate the broadest level of public support possible. The coalitions that we work within–and frequently help assemble–are composed of groups and individuals with diverse perspectives. Sometimes the only real common ground is the common ground we are working together to protect.  

If we allow ourselves to become distracted by any number of the admittedly deserving issues related to broader environmentalism or species work, we risk limiting our appeal and our credibility as honest brokers for land conservation. Allowing ourselves to become directly involved in issues beyond our core mission also strains our limited resources.

And yet, we know it is not true Wilderness without wildlife. We know efforts to protect species are essential. That is why we work with and rely on our partners to use their expertise to more directly protect species. We believe that the way we can best serve species issues is to protect habitat and that our expertise, our special role and niche in New Mexico, is land conservation and Wilderness protection. We think we do this better than anyone else.

“Fair enough,” you say, “But why are you so involved in Mexican gray wolf recovery efforts? Why the Lobo and not others?”

Just as habitat is critical to protecting species, this species is critical to protecting the habitat of the Gila that so many animals depend upon. By helping to protect the Lobo, we are helping to protect the values that make the Gila Wilderness the special—and wild—place it is.

The Mexican gray wolf is a keystone species, a top predator that, at healthy populations, would help maintain healthy herds of elk, deer, and other native ungulates, in addition to positively impacting all levels of the food chain within its ecosystem.

The Mexican gray wolf also is emblematic of the wild Southwest.  A century ago, wild wolves had a profound impact on Aldo Leopold’s thinking about our relationship to the land. Leopold is responsible for the creation of the world’s first administratively protected Wilderness area, the Gila Wilderness, where he began to formulate his land ethic. His philosophy ultimately resulted in a profound change in how Americans thought about our nation’s public lands.
The Gila occupies a special space, literally and figuratively, in the Wilderness protection movement. Already New Mexico’s largest Wilderness area, the Gila has nearby millions of acres of additional roadless and wilderness quality lands that deserve protection. It is the area in the state large enough to have the best chance of functioning as an intact, self-willed ecosystem.
Aldo Leopold, widely acknowledged as father of wildlife conservation in America, was responsible for the creation of the Gila Wilderness and it was here, too, that he began to formulate his land ethic. He articulated, for the first time, an ethic dealing with human’s relation “to land and to the animal and plants which grow upon it.” An ethic that “affirm[ed] their right to continued existence, and, at least in spots, their continued existence in a natural state.” A relationship characterized by interdependence, interconnectedness, cooperation, living communities and humility. A recognition that the lands and the animals have intrinsic worth apart from any economic value.

The Mexican wolf is the most endangered mammal in North America, and the most endangered subspecies of wolf in the world. With only 109 Mexican wolves in the wild, protection of each individual is critical. Without our help, we believe there is a real risk that recovery efforts could fail and that the Lobo could be gone from the wild forever. We also believe we add real value to the fight, particularly through our legal and technical expertise. For example, our challenge of the U.S. Department of Justice’s McKittrick policy, if successful, could mean the difference between recovery and extinction and could fundamentally transform how the Endangered Species Act is administered and enforced nationwide.

We know that it isn’t truly wild without wildlife. And we know that nothing is more wild than the howl of the wolf.  We feel that we can best protect wildlife by staying true to our core mission of land conservation and Wilderness protection. But for us, for now, the Mexican gray wolf is different.