February 7, 2009
By Rene Romo
Journal Southern Bureau
LAS CRUCES—The wild population of the endangered Mexican gray wolf did not grow in 2008, according to a year-end census announced Friday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that found only 52 wolves in southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona.
Although the static population could be seen as a positive, given that wolf numbers declined in three of the previous four year-end counts, the FWS regional director and environmentalists expressed disappointment. An environmental impact statement projected before the reintroduction program’s start in 1998 that the wild population would grow to more than 100 wolves by the end of 2006, with 18 breeding pairs.
“I don’t want anyone to think we are satisfied with these numbers, because we are not,” said Benjamin Tuggle, regional director for Fish and Wildlife’s Southwest Region.
Eva Sargent, director of the Southwestern program for Tucson-based Defenders of Wildlife, said, “It’s a relief to see that the overall number of Mexican wolves hasn’t gone down, but we can’t continue to lose breeding pairs.”
The number of breeding pairs in the 4 million-acre wolf recovery area declined from four in 2007 to two by the end of 2008, which had begun with seven pairs. Seven of 10 packs produced at least 18 pups, but only 11 pups survived until the end of the year.
Five wolf pairs lost their federal designation as breeding pairs during the year. To meet the definition, two or more of a pair’s pups born in the spring must survive to year’s end. In the case of three packs, only one pup survived. In two other cases, one or more of the mates died.
In 2007, 19 wolves were removed from the wild for killing livestock, but last year no wolves were removed.
Illegal poaching was the leading cause of death for Mexican gray wolves in 2008. Five wolves were illegally shot to death, and two other suspicious deaths are under investigation, federal officials said.
Tuggle said that, had it not been for those deaths, “2008 would have seen Mexican wolf populations on the upswing again. These mortalities are an intolerable impediment to wolf recovery.”
About 30 wolves have been illegally shot since the program’s start in 1998.
Laura Schneberger, head of the Gila Livestock Growers Association, wrote in an e-mail: “Illegal shootings are the result of not removing seriously problem wolves and a lot of conflict that was completely unmanaged.”
Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity in Silver City said the more fundamental issue that hampered wolf population growth last year was a FWS policy that called for the trapping of 16 wolves and the shooting of three others in 2007 for livestock depredation.
Although no wolves were removed from the wild last year for killing cattle, Schneberger wrote: “Just because FWS didn’t remove any animals didn’t mean that they shouldn’t have.”