Conservation biologists focusing on genetic health of packs
FRISCO — The future for wolves in the southwestern U.S. looks a little brighter this year, as the population grew by 31 percent to reach 109 wolves living in the wilds of New Mexico and Arizona.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it’s the fourth year in a row that the population has grown by at least 10 percent. The 2014 minimum population count includes 38 wild-born pups that survived through the end of the year.
“In 1982, the Mexican wolf recovery team recommended a population of at least 100 animals in the wild as a hedge against extinction; until we initiated the first releases in 1998, there had been no Mexican wolves in the wild in the United States since the 1970s,” said Southwest Regional Director Benjamin Tuggle. “Although there is still much to be done, reaching this milestone is monumental!”
Wildlife conservation advocates said they are cautiously optimistic that the wolf recovery program is on the right track.
“Finally spared from widespread persecution, Mexican wolves are starting to back away from the cliff-edge of extinction,” said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity. “But they remain a long way from recovery. Scientists have determined that a minimum of 750 wolves in three populations is needed to ensure the lobo’s long-term survival.”
According to Robinson, this year’s population increase can be partly attributed to the fact that the USFWS is sparing more wolves from removal or destruction and instead working to prevent livestock depredations.
Conservation advocates say this represents moral and ethical progress spurred in part by a series of lawsuits aimed at stopping federal shootings and trapping that were leading to repeated downturns in wolf numbers.
In 2014 just one wolf, the alpha female from the Paradise pack in Arizona, was trapped and taken into captivity as a result of depredations. In addition, in 2014, nine wild wolves died, including one from cancer.
“This survey demonstrates a major accomplishment in Mexican wolf recovery,” said Arizona Game and Fish Director Larry Voyles. “In 2010, there were 50 Mexican wolves in the wild; today there are 109, a more than doubling of the population in Arizona and New Mexico. With our Mexican wolf population consisting of wild-born wolves, we expect the growth rates observed this year to continue into the future,” Voyles added.
State and federal scientists said they’ve also taken steps to boost the genetic resiliency of the wolf population by transferring “genetically valuable” pups between packs. Altogether the recovery team conducted 14 releases and translocations during 2014.
“Testing and implementing new management techniques, such as cross-fostering, can help us improve the genetics of the wild population,” said Tuggle. “The experimental population is growing … now our strategy is to focus on establishing a genetically robust population on a working landscape.”
Aerial surveys showed a total of 19 packs, with a minimum of 53 wolves in New Mexico and 56 wolves in Arizona. The current survey documented 14 packs that had at least one pup that survived through the end of the year, with two that had at least five surviving through the end of the year.