Gila Mexican Wolf Center

The Southwest Environmental Center has proposed a Gila Mexican Wolf Center (GMWC) in Grant County, New Mexico.

Modeled after the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minnesota, the GMWC would be a museum-type facility aimed at providing the public with information about Mexican wolves and other wildlife of the Gila Region. It would feature exhibits, programs, a theater, gift shop, and perhaps a research arm and community meeting rooms.

The International Wolf Center attracts about 40,000 visitors annually and generates about $3 million to the local community.

SWEC is promoting the GMWC as a tourist attraction and economic development project that could bring revenues and jobs to a community on the edge of the Mexican Wolf Recovery Area.

Grant County enjoys an advantage shared by few communities in the lower 48—promixity to big wilderness where wild wolves roam. Only the Northern Rockies, Yellowstone, the upper Midwest, and eastern North Carolina (red wolves) can make that claim.

We often hear about the negative impacts of wolves on local communities, but not about the potential economic benefits they can bring. Many people around the world are fascinated by these intelligent and beautiful creatures, and are willing to travel long distances and spend their money for the opportunity to experience wild wolves. The “experience” can include seeing wolves, hearing them howl, or just observing their sign, such as tracks, kills, and scat. Part of that experience can also include the type of interpretation provided by a facility such as the proposed GMWC.

Wolf watching in Yellowstone is big business.

Yellowstone provides a good example of the economic potential of wolves. Wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park in 1995. People have flocked to see them since then. A University of Montana study (2006) found that people who visited Yellowstone primarily to see wolves spent $35 million annually in communities around the park. That’s new money that wolves were responsible for bringing into the economy.

The proposed GMWC could be a tourist attraction in its own right. That’s certainly the case with the IWC, which draws 50,000 visitors each year to a town with less than 5000 residents. The IWC employs more than 20 staff, and generates about $3.5 million in economic activity.

We are often asked if the GMWC will have captive wolves on site, like the International Wolf Center. That is not part of our proposal. There are already plenty of zoos in the region with Mexican wolves, most of them helping to recover the species by participating in the captive breeding program.

Although the focus would be on the Mexican gray wolf, the proposed GMWC could also be a source of information about other aspects of the region’s rich natural and cultural heritage. For example, the Greater Gila Ecoregion supports an extraordinarily high number of animal species, including more than 300 birds. It is also the place where Aldo Leopold, a seminal figure in modern ecological thought, first began to develop his ideas of a “land ethic.” It is home to the nation’s first designated wilderness as well as the Apache and Mimbres legacy, the Gila Cliff Dwellings, and the Janos Biosphere Reserve and Nuevo Casas Grandes in Mexico. A GMWC would fit well as part of a “package” with these other attractions.

SWEC is an organization devoted to protecting native wildlife in the Southwest. Our reasons for supporting Mexican wolf recovery have little to do with their potential economic benefits to humans. However, when economic arguments are on the side of conservation, it would be foolish to ignore them.

We have presented our proposal to many elected officials in recent months, in both Grant County and Santa Fe. The reception has generally been positive. It was endorsed by the Silver City Town Council in late 2008. We have developed a  business plan and are currently raising funds for the first phase of the project.