Wildlife advocates fight for conservation at Dinner with the Wolves

Dinner with Wolves was April 2 at Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center. (photo by Charlie Clark)

Beneath the canopy of the Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center and on the backdrop of an Arizona sunset surrounded by dinner guests, a Defenders of Wildlife representative began a speech, when suddenly he was interrupted by the evening’s beneficiaries.

At first it was just one haunting bellow. But then came another, and another and soon a chorus of howls was serenading the night sky.

It was the cry that has made wolves an icon of the American wilderness for centuries, and symbolic of the magnetism that has endeared them in the hearts of many.

Guests had come for a “Dinner with the Wolves” on April 2, and the wolves did not disappoint.

Sunday night about 80 people gathered at the Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center just north of Scottsdale for the “Dinner with the Wolves,” an annual dinner fundraiser in support of what was once one of the most endangered species in the world: the Mexican gray wolf.

At the event guests participated in an auction and were treated to a private tour of the Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center where they could see wolves, bears, foxes, mountain lions and a leopard. They then ate dinner and received a presentation from Defenders of Wildlife all while in the presence of the Center’s wolves.

This was the fourth time the event has been held and last year’s dinner raised $35,000 in net profits, all of which went to Defenders of Wildlife and the Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center.

“It takes a village, and it’s events like this that help keep the home fires burning, so we can do our work, and bring awareness,” said Linda Searles, executive director of Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center. “The public wants the wolves. They want their wildlife, they want them for now and they want them for their children and their grandchildren.”

Once numbered in the thousands, the Mexican gray wolves were nearly wiped out in the U.S. by the mid-1970s, with only a handful surviving in zoos. But in 1998 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service launched a reintroduction effort releasing 11 wolves back into the wild in Arizona.

Since then the population has grown significantly reaching the state’s original goal of 100 wolves. There are now about 113 wild wolves in Arizona, said Defenders of Wildlife Southwest Representative Craig Miller, but just because progress has been made that doesn’t mean the wolves are secure.

The growth of the wolves has led to conflict with some ranchers, and debate over the number of wolves needed has become a hotly contested issue.

(photo by Charlie Clark)

“In order for wolves to survive in the long-term, and in order to achieve the many ecological, cultural and economic benefits, you need to have the population at a level that is much higher than the level of just what is required to preserve their genes,” Mr. Miller said.

Mr. Miller said that through hunting elk, wolves prevent overgrazing which in turn impacts a variety of environmental factors from soil quality and water temperatures, to cottonwood plants and the population of fish including the endangered Apache trout.

“Wolves aren’t a magic bean, but they are an important part of a complex system,” Mr. Miller added.

The unique journey of the Mexican gray wolves and the up and down battle since their release is what drew Ann Siner, CEO of My Sister’s Closet, to support the cause and create and sponsor the event.

“It was to bring awareness to the Mexican gray wolf story and the whole uphill battle to get them reintroduced to Arizona and Mexico,” Ms. Siner said.

Ms. Siner added that it is also very important to raise money for Defenders of Wildlife and the Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center, who she praised for the key role it plays in wildlife rehabilitation, rescue, reintroduction and education.

As the evening came to close, it also became clear that this year’s event took on even greater importance given the current political landscape.

Senator Jeff Flake recently introduced legislation that would give the states of Arizona and New Mexico the right to dictate the terms of Mexican gray wolf recovery.

Advocates argue that this will undermine the scientific standards of the Endangered Species Act and history has proven that states tend to be hostile toward predators and in particular, wolves.

“When this happened in 2004, numbers dropped precipitously, it was a disaster,” Ms. Siner said. “Let Senator Flake know you are adamantly opposed to this bill.”

Editor’s Note: Charlie Clark is an Arizona State University student.

Snack time at Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center. (photo by Charlie Clark)

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