ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Hated by ranchers and revered by environmentalists as a symbol of the American Southwest’s wildness, the Mexican gray wolf has struggled over the past 15 years to find a foothold in the forests of Arizona and New Mexico.
But federal wildlife officials announced Wednesday that the predator has made its biggest stride yet. Annual survey results show there are at least 75 wolves in the wild in Arizona and New Mexico, the most since the federal government began efforts to return the wolves to their historic range in 1998.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regional director Benjamin Tuggle attributed the boost in population to management efforts aimed at reducing conflicts between the wolves and ranchers and other rural residents.
Over the years, the number of wolves has gone up and down, and Tuggle acknowledged that more work needs to be done to tackle the persistent challenges that have prevented the program from being more successful.
“We recognize the largest threats to the populations that we have on the landscape continue to be genetic diversity and illegal mortality,” he said.
The plan this year, he said, is prevent more wolf shootings and to infuse more genetic diversity into the population. That could mean more releases of captive-bred wolves into the wild.
The estimates released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are based on ground and aerial surveys done in recent weeks. There are at least 38 wolves in New Mexico and 37 in Arizona. Last year, the estimate stood at 58 for the two states.
The survey also indicated there were three breeding pairs among the 13 packs that were identified. There were twice as many breeding pairs last year, but officials noted that 20 pups were born in 2012 and survived through the end of the year, marking the 11th consecutive year in which wild-born wolves bred and raised pups in the wild.
Larry Voyles, director of the Arizona Game and Fish Department, said one of the keys to success is increasing the percentage of the population that’s born in the wild. Now, all but one of the wolves on the ground in New Mexico and Arizona were born in the wild.
Environmentalists argued that building a sustainable population isn’t likely when there are so few breeding pairs. They said Mexican wolves are facing a “genetic crisis.”
The Mexican wolf, a subspecies of the gray wolf, once roamed New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and Mexico. Hunting and government-sponsored extermination campaigns all but wiped out the predator. It was added to the federal endangered species list in 1976.
Returning the wolves to the wild has been hampered by everything from politics to illegal killings. Disputes over management of the program also have spurred numerous legal actions by environmentalists who have been pushing for more wolves to be released and ranchers who are concerned about their livelihoods and safety in rural communities.
The new population estimates come as federal officials attempt to revamp a decades-old plan that guides wolf management. A draft proposal calls for establishing rules for wolves that migrate into other parts of Arizona and New Mexico and into West Texas.
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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.
Photo credits: Endangered Wolf Center