Hopeful signs for recovery effort, but challenges remain
By Bob Berwyn
FRISCO — Against a backdrop of political and legal battles over the status of wolves, Mexican gray wolf numbers have increased the fourth year in a row, with 83 wolves now living in the wilds of New Mexico and Arizona.
That’s up 10 percent from last year and almost 100 percent from four years ago, according to the annual tally from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The number of breeding pairs also increased from three to five.
“With a minimum of 83 wolves in the wild, the Mexican wolf population has nearly doubled in the past four years,” said USFWS regional director Benjamin Tuggle. “I’m proud of the remarkable progress that the Mexican Wolf Recovery Program and its partners have achieved in bringing the Mexican wolf back from the brink of extinction.”
“It’s thrilling that the wolf population has increased for the fourth year in a row,” said wolf recovery advocate Michael Robinson, with the Center for Biological Diversity. “They remain a long way from being recovered, but this is definitely encouraging news.”
Robinson said pressure — including lawsuits — from conservation activists has helped the recovery effort by reducing the number of wolves killed or removed in response to livestock predations. In 2008 the Center for Biological Diversity and other groups successfully sued the agency over a policy that routinely removed any wolf that was involved in three livestock depredations.
Tuggle said all the wolves currently within the recovery area are wild born, which indicates progress toward establishing a wild population from a captive breeding program that started with only 7 wolves. The USFWS plans additional releases of captive-born wolves to address genetic issues within the wild population, he added.
Robinson said more releases would be a key step toward recovery. During the past five years, federal biologists only released one new wolf from the captive-breeding pool into the wild, and that wolf was taken back into captivity just three weeks after his release last January. The agency also shut down a recovery team that was widely expected to issue a new recovery plan calling for releasing Mexican wolves in new areas.
Starting additional population centers in the Grand Canyon and southern Rockies is critical, Robinson said.
“The continued increase in wolf numbers is a big relief,” said Robinson. “But much more still needs to be done to recover these highly endangered and beautiful animals to sustainable levels.”
Mexican wolves were reintroduced in Arizona and New Mexico in 1998 and were projected to increase to 102 wolves in the wild, including 18 breeding pairs, by the end of 2006.
But the recovery effort is still well short of these goals, likely because of a combination of captures and killings by Fish and Wildlife Service, illegal killings, small litter sizes and low pup-survival rates, Robinson said.
In addition to the 2008 lawsuit, the Center filed and settled three lawsuits last year that all improve the Mexican wolf recovery program by limiting wolf removals, providing more room for releases and for roaming, and ensuring more focused conservation attention.
In mid-February, the USFWS announced plans for 2014 wolf releases to replace wolves that were illegally shot.
The Mexican Wolf Interagency Field Team tasked with the day-to-day management of the wild population captured two wild males during the January winter population count. M1249 was taken to the Service’s Sevilleta Wolf Management Facility in New Mexico and is paired with a captive female wolf. M1290 was paired with a captive female wolf and is being held in a release pen in the Apache National Forest.
Neither of the male wolves has documented involvement in livestock depredations or nuisance behavior, making the animals good candidates for pairing with a captive female and subsequent release. Both wolf pairs are being observed for breeding behavior and will be released into the primary recovery zone in Arizona in the spring prior to giving birth.
“This is one of the important steps in Game and Fish’s commitment to replace the four wolves lost to illegal causes between 2011 and 2013. One of the key considerations when the options were evaluated was to improve population genetics, which is important to the long-term survival of the subspecies,” said Jim deVos, the Arizona Game and Fish Department’s assistant director for wildlife management.
An additional option to replace wolves illegally shot and to increase the genetic diversity of the wild population – cross fostering wolf pups born in captivity into a wild wolf pack litter – still remains under consideration and will be evaluated in the future.
“The pairing of genetically valuable females with males with wild experience accomplishes two goals, adding genetically valuable genes into the population and replacing wolves that were taken illegally,” Tuggle said. “If these pairs successfully establish themselves in the wild, they will increase population numbers immediately and will contribute to a more genetically robust population in the future,” he added.