After the wild Mexican wolf population tops 100 for the first time, 15 illegal shootings may slow recovery.
ALPINE — Biologists hauled a 60-pound Mexican gray wolf from the chopper on Monday, limp but healthy with a lush winter mane.
They called it the wolf's worst day in months — dazed from having been darted from above, still rapidly licking his nose through a blindfold muzzle — but the male wolf was one of the fortunate among a divisive and still-embattled breed that has weathered an especially perilous year of poachings.
Unknown shooters have illegally killed at least 15 Mexican wolves since officials reported a year ago that a record 110 were roaming wild in eastern Arizona and western New Mexico, according to a lead state biologist on the recovery program.
The poaching losses tripled from 2014, and were likely unprecedented in the 18 years since the first captive-bred lobos brought their once-exiled howls back to the Blue Range spanning the Apache and Gila national forests.
Wolf-recovery specialists, like those in Alpine this week, are working to make sure the survivors flourish instead of backsliding to a more critically endangered status.
The team of federal and state biologists carried Wolf No. M1342 on a mesh sling. They brought the wolf inside their pine-ringed Alpine field station and slid him onto a slab wooden table for a checkup and shots to keep him robust for an important breeding season this spring. They injected a second sedative that would put the wolf out cold for about an hour.
The scientists gathered round the Elk Horn pack's would-be alpha male, prodding veins for intravenous fluids and pushing an oxygen tube up his black nostrils. They were counting on the wolf to return healthy to his young mate on snowy Escudilla Mountain, and produce their first successful litter to help extend recent annual gains in a slow-recovering population.
As recently as five years ago, there were an estimated 50 Mexican wolves in the wild, less than half of last year's count. Whether this year's survey finds the population continuing to grow will depend on the 40 or so pups observed since last spring. Historically, about half of pups have survived their first year.
Besides the wolves that were shot, about a dozen more adults are missing, "fate unknown."
M1342 was lucky to have a dart dangling from his paw, and not a trail of lead fragments through his chest.
Shootings have always been a key threat since the 1998 reintroduction.
The anti-wolf mentality commonly known as "shoot, shovel and shut up" is hard to combat. Bullets typically pass through a wolf's body and leave little useful evidence, said Jeff Dolphin, Mexican wolf field supervisor for the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
"You just can't be everywhere at once," Dolphin said.
Only a handful of what may be dozens of shooters have faced charges related to killing one of the protected wolves since 1998. Federal, state and non-governmental organizations offer a combined reward of up to $58,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of a wolf poacher.
A controversial task
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service veterinarian Susan Dicks coached the team of biologists and field technicians tending to M1342: how to draw blood for DNA and other tests; where to inject a rabies vaccine; how to determine age by measuring teeth; how to increase fluids or pour cooling alcohol on the paws if his temperature rises past 103 or so.
Besides the preventive medicine and data collection, the prime objective for M1342's capture during a yearly aerial wolf survey was to fit it with a new transmitter collar. The collar he had received in a similar operation last year hadn't functioned, so biologists only knew the wolf's whereabouts by occasional observation.
Uncollared wolves are difficult to track to ensure they're not getting into trouble, such as by attacking livestock.
Not every wild Mexican wolf is collared, but scientists like to have them on a wolf of every generation in a pack. Last year's survey counted 19 packs, including eight known to have a breeding pair.
Studies show that these free-ranging wolves eat elk upward of 80 percent of the time, but cows are also occasionally on the menu. A government and non-profit fund pays for the losses. So far, the wolf program has paid out $68,000 for 50 confirmed livestock losses in 2015, and another $25,000 in claims is awaiting action by a compensation council.
"It's such a controversial program, and (people) want us to manage these animals," Dicks explained. "The way we manage is with that collar. It communicates and tells us what they're doing."
The latest in a string of political struggles over the lightweight cousin of more plentiful northern gray wolves involves where they should be allowed.
Wolf advocates say they need unoccupied territory such as the forests around the Grand Canyon to sustain a population large and dispersed enough to withstand sudden die-offs. The governors of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah recently co-signed a letter to the federal program opposing such a northern expansion into previously undocumented wolf territory and instead backing a push south into Mexico.
The number of wolves needed to ensure long-term survival also is in dispute. Some want to hold the line around today's numbers, but others say at least a sevenfold increase is needed.
Federal recovery effort
Arizona is a partner in the federal recovery effort within a recovery zone that stretches from New Mexico and onto the Mogollon Rim. Officials say the state has spent $3 million since the recovery program began with captive animals in the 1980s.
This week, the team said one wolf had roamed west to within 35 miles of Payson, though it was unclear whether it was wandering alone. Others were prowling below the Rim, south of Alpine.
M1342's gray-brown fur was thick, with no signs of mange or fleas, but Dicks squeezed an anti-parasite lotion onto the skin between the shoulders as an extra precaution. The team slid the wolf into a large dog crate and set the wolf outside to recover his senses for a truck ride back up the mountain to freedom.
"We're trying to help them out before breeding season," Dicks said. "The population is so small."
The subspecies had dropped to seven holdouts in Mexico during the late 20th century, survivors of private and government hunters who cleared the region of what had commonly been considered a menace. They were removed from the wild and stocked a captive breeding program that at last count fostered more than 250 wolves at 55 sites in the U.S. and Mexico.
A few years ago, the population struggled to stay atop 50 from one year to the next, hindered not just by illegal shootings or natural causes, but by government agents shooting or removing to captivity wolves that attacked livestock.
Since then, the program has focused its efforts on conflict-avoidance, said John Oakleaf, field coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
With help from partners such as Defenders of Wildlife, the government has enlisted ranchers who accept payment for the wolves' presence but also get help from range riders protecting cattle. It may have kept the number of illegal shootings from climbing even higher.
"In the end," Oakleaf said, "the tolerance of humans for wolves is what allows them to persist or not persist in the wild.
"It's what drove them to extinction, or near extinction, and it's what's driving them toward recovery now."
Final numbers next month
The Fish and Wildlife Service will release the final numbers from this year's count next month. Until then, total deaths aren't officially tallied, but Oakleaf acknowledged the illegal shootings will be "as high as we've ever documented."
Dolphin put the number at 15, and said he doubts the population estimate will remain above 100 this year. Still, he's optimistic after years of bigger struggles to stabilize the population.
All of the wolves now in the wild were born out there, which may make them better adapted than their parents were to hunting and surviving on game. A recent experiment showed that it's possible to drop a captive-bred pup or two in with newborn wild litters, and the wild packs will raise them as their own.
"It's kind of a roller-coaster," Dolphin said of the wild population, but long term, the trend is up.
Wolf advocates are also cautiously optimistic, though they believe the packs need more territory, and more of a boost from now-rare releases of captive pairs in new haunts.
"If you put (captive-bred) pups in the dens of existing packs, you may be increasing the number of animals," Center for Biological Diversity wolf specialist Michael Robinson said, "but you're not increasing their distribution."
A common complaint of wolf proponents is that Mexican wolves, coming from such a limited breeding stock, lack genetic diversity and pay for it with smaller litters than other wolves have.
"The urgent thing is to get more wolves with genetically diverse backgrounds on the ground as quickly as possible," Robinson said.
Returning groggily to the wild
After M1342 had regained enough of his senses to lift his head and sit up in the crate, Arizona Game and Fish biologist Brent Wolf and two colleagues loaded the crate onto a four-wheel-drive pickup and drove him back up Escudilla Mountain.
They drove as far as the truck would take them without getting stuck in the snow, getting as near as possible to the spot where the helicopter crew had darted M1342 and then set down to take the male from his mate. The return crew set the crate down at the edge of a snowy alpine meadow surrounded by scraggly willows and fat ponderosa pines, many of them torched and left bare by the massive 2011 Wallow Fire.
The groggy wolf took a few minutes to crawl out, then sat in the snow for several more. His golden-brown eyes stared toward the crew inside the pickup, and he licked the dart wound while waiting for the sedation to free his hind legs. The wolf walked slowly across the meadow, likely to be reunited with his mate once he heard a howl.
The two are believed to have mated last year, but did not produce any surviving pups, Wolf said. That's common among first-timers, he said, and their experience should help them when they try again.
"I'd be shocked if they didn't have pups this spring," Wolf said while reversing and turning the truck to head back down the mountain.