ALBUQUERQUE — More than a dozen endangered Mexican gray wolves were killed in 2016, including two at the hands of wildlife officials who were capturing and collaring the animals as part of an annual survey of the struggling population.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service confirmed this week that 14 wolf deaths were documented last year, marking the most in any single year since the federal government began reintroducing the predators in New Mexico and Arizona in 1998.
Many of the cases remain under investigation. But federal officials have acknowledged that illegal killings have been a problem over the years and will likely continue as the wolf population grows and the animals disperse into other areas of the Southwest.
Part of the mission of the multi-agency team that oversees recovery will be to keep track of the wolves this year and notify the public as they move into previously uninhabited areas, Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman John Bradley said.
The federal agency, which coordinates with other federal departments, state game officials in Arizona and the White Mountain Apache Tribe in Arizona, also says it’s on track to release an updated recovery plan for the species later this year.
Accused in federal court of dragging its feet for decades, the Fish and Wildlife Service is now under a court order to get it done this year. But officials say they have made no decisions about whether the plan will involve wolf releases in neighboring Colorado or Utah.
New Mexico already is entangled in a legal fight over the release of wolves within its boundaries. The state has cited concerns about the direction of the reintroduction program and the failure of the federal agency to revamp the outdated recovery plan.
Environmentalists have been pushing for years for the release of more captive-bred wolves to bolster the population and address genetic issues.
Ranchers throughout the region have been vocal opponents, saying wolves are threatening their livelihood through the killing of livestock and have compromised public safety in rural communities.
A review of the program’s monthly reports shows investigators in 2016 confirmed more than two dozen livestock kills by wolves in western New Mexico and eastern Arizona. There were also a few nuisance reports filed last year.
There are about 100 wolves in the wild in New Mexico and Arizona, and environmentalists say that’s not enough to ensure the species’ survival.
While many of last year’s cases are still under investigation, Michael Robinson with the Center for Biological Diversity called the illegal shooting of wolves an “unacceptable ongoing loss to the population.”
He also said the greatest threat continues to be the freeze on wolf releases and voiced concerns about any potential federal legislation that would call for limiting or removing protections for the wolves.