Mexican gray wolves had a record year in the Southwest, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Wednesday, growing to their highest population number since their 1998 reintroduction into Arizona and New Mexico by successfully rearing 20 wild-born pups.
The wild population at the end of 2012 stood at 75, almost evenly split between the two states. That was up from 58 in 2011. An additional 300 or so wolves live in a dispersed captive-breeding program meant to augment the population.
Wolf-recovery advocates said that the annual census is great news but that dangers, including a lack of genetic diversity, remain for the endangered species.
“It’s not enough to solve the genetic crisis,” said Eva Sargent, Southwest program director for Defenders of Wildlife. “But it’s still a good thing.”
Four wolves were killed illegally last year, and those deaths remain under investigation, said Benjamin Tuggle, regional director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. However, the numbers may indicate people are adapting.
“This result shows that we are moving toward our recovery goal,” Tuggle said.
The problem, according to some program watchers, is that there is no set recovery goal. The government didn’t write a plan with desired numbers when it started the program in 1982 because the situation was so dire that no one knew what a recovery might take. The agency now is working on such a plan.
Officially, a breeding pair is a male and a female that parent at least two pups and see them through to Dec. 31. Other wolves parented, step-parented or otherwise had a role in producing 20 pups last year, but only three pairs met the definition. That’s down from six pairs in 2011.
“That’s very worrisome,” said Michael Robinson, a conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity.
The wild population sorely needs genetic diversity, but the agency is slow to release new blood from its captive program, Robinson said.
The one wolf it released this winter, a potential new mate for the widowed alpha female of the so-called Bluestem Pack, failed to hit it off with the female and was taken back into captivity.
Robinson said biologists should have let the wolf roam to see if it could find another wild mate, but Tuggle said his staff wanted to make sure the male would breed successfully.
The plan is to mate it with a female in captivity and then release both, together, during the pregnancy. Other releases will follow this year, he said.
Robinson said the government has said that before but hasn’t released another wolf from the captive program in four years.
“We need to see wolves released into the wild soon, instead of promises to release wolves,” he said.
Defenders of Wildlife works with ranchers on several programs, including sharing costs to pay range riders to deter wolf predation on cattle.
A rancher may provide a horse or bunkhouse, while the organization pays the wages.
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The overall population increase reported is good news, but still too small, and the decline in breeding pairs of Mexican gray wolves in the wild shows that much more needs to be done, and soon.
Geneticists have warned for years that the wild population needs greater diversity, but the US Fish and Wildlife Service has only released one new wolf into the wild in the past five years and removed a successful breeding alpha female last year over livestock.
The increase in population shows the resiliency and tenacity of these special wolves, but more pups from the same few breeding pairs will not solve the genetic issue. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must implement an emergency genetic rescue plan and release many more wolves into the wild.
Almost 15 years after the first Mexican wolves were reintroduced, there are still only 75 wolves in the wild, and only 3 pairs whose pups survived this year. More wolves to form more breeding pairs are needed to stop inbreeding that researchers suggest may be lowering litter sizes and depressing pup-survival rates.
The window is closing on fixing the genetic issue, and one of the easiest steps the US Fish and Wildlife Service can take is to release more wolves from captivity, and do it now.
Since August, 2006, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has only released two new Mexican gray wolves into the wild, in spite of warnings about genetics from scientists.
This population increase is because of the wolves’ amazing ability to survive and breed pups. It is in spite of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s failure to make needed changes and release more wolves.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service also needs to make changes to allow Mexican wolves to recolonize a larger area of their former range and serve their important role in shaping the Southwest’s ecosystems.
There is plenty of room for many more wolves to be released. The Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area comprises 4.4 million acres (twice the size of Yellowstone National Park), which support an extraordinary array of wildlife and vegetation types. The Fish and Wildlife Service has refused to change the rule that arbitrarily excludes new wolves from being released outside a small portion of the recovery area in Arizona, and is using the mere presence of livestock as a justification not to release wolves into a wider range of the available area in Arizona.
Mexican gray wolves are unique animals. They are the rarest, most genetically distinct subspecies of gray wolf in North America and the most endangered wolf in the world.
The wolf is a benefit to the West and helps maintain the balance of nature.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife service should manage Mexican gray wolves to ensure their recovery and not risk extinction again.
Mexican gray wolves are intelligent, beautiful, family-oriented animals.
Mexican gray wolves are an essential part of the balance of nature. They keep elk and deer herds healthy by ensuring the most fit animals survive.
Wolves are part of God’s creation. We have a responsibility to take care of them.