Mexican gray wolf numbers are up in New Mexico and Arizona, according to a new report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
There are 163 of the endangered wolves in the wild, compared with 131 last year.
“The count shows we have more wolves, more breeding pairs and more pups born in the wild than ever before,” said Amy Lueders, Southwest regional director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Albuquerque.
The new numbers for the Mexican gray wolf recovery program show 87 wild wolves in New Mexico and 76 in Arizona. Last year, there were 67 in New Mexico and 64 in Arizona.
Lueders credited the team’s “science-based, on-the-ground management efforts” for another year of population increases. The current recovery plan has a goal of 320 wild wolves.
Bryan Bird, Southwest program director for Defenders of Wildlife, said he is encouraged by the increase and applauded the team’s dedication. Defenders of Wildlife works with the agencies and ranchers to promote coexistence between landowners and wolves.
“We still have the challenges of genetic diversity and coexistence,” Bird told the Journal. “Ranching is not an easy business. We offer tools and training for people who live and work in wolf country to adapt to having wolves back on the landscape. We’re all trying to find solutions. We also bring down ranchers from areas like the northern Rockies to show that it is possible to have success when it comes to coexisting with wolves.”
New Mexico had 126 confirmed livestock kills by wolves and 10 probable wolf depredations in 2019. Arizona had 58 confirmed wolf depredation incidents and one probable livestock kill.
Defenders of Wildlife pays for range-riders to patrol areas on horseback and act as a human presence to scare away wolves. That funding is matched by the states and the federal government. The group also pays for fences lined with fladry, bright strips of fabric that move in the wind and deter wolves from entering the property.
Landowners are encouraged to dispose of carcasses, and adjust when and where calving operations take place.
Still, the challenge remains for New Mexico ranchers as wild wolf populations grow.
Laura Schneberger, who runs a cow-calf ranch near the Gila National Forest, told the Journal last year that “wolves have just mowed through livestock” on her property.
Fish and Wildlife works with Arizona Game and Fish, the U.S. Forest Service, USDA Wildlife Services, the White Mountain Apache Tribe and New Mexico Game and Fish on its annual wolf count from November through January. The crew captures and re-releases wild wolves to repair tracking collars and collect blood samples to better understand each pack’s genetics.
There are 103 collared wild wolves. The new numbers show 42 wolf packs and 10 individuals. The reintroduction program started in 1998 with seven captive wolves.
Fish and Wildlife uses cross-fostering – taking captive pups that are less than 10 days old and placing them in wild dens in areas where wolves already live. In 2019, the team placed 12 captive-born wolf pups into five wild dens.
This year, New Mexico and Arizona have not placed a limit on the number of cross-fostered pups, according to Aislinn Maestas, spokeswoman for the agency’s Southwestern region.
Michael Robinson, advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, said that the population increase is good news but that genetic diversity is still lacking in the wild wolves.
In October, the center joined 80 conservation groups and scientists in writing a letter to Fish and Wildlife, asking the agency to change its management approach to the endangered animal.
“There are significantly more wolves on the ground, which reduces the vulnerability of the population,” Robinson said. “But it’s worrisome that each generation of wolves are more inbred than the previous year. The agencies should release well-bonded male and female pairs with pups.”
The program’s last release of a wolf family into the wild was in 2006.
Wednesday’s report shows that about 90 pups were born in 2019 and that 52 pups survived to the end of the year. That’s a 58% survival rate, compared with the average 50% survival rate of Mexican wolf pups. The team reported 14 mortalities of wild adult wolves in 2019, compared with 21 in 2018.
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.