Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
Five endangered Mexican gray wolves were found dead in New Mexico last month, according to data released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Wednesday.
That brings the number of wolves found dead this year to 17, the highest number of deaths since the critically endangered subspecies of gray wolf was reintroduced to the wild in 1998.
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Office of Law Enforcement is investigating all five of the November Mexican wolf mortalities. We will share more information with the public when it is available,” Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Aislinn Maestas wrote in an emailed statement Thursday. “Even with these five losses, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does not anticipate mortality rates for the year to be outside of average levels for the Mexican wolf population.”
No one at the Fish and Wildlife Service was available to be interviewed about the deaths on Thursday.
The Mexican wolf population in the U.S. was at 114 at last count, at the end of 2017.
Maestas offered one possible reason for the uptick in wolf mortality: better tracking.
“We also have more Mexican wolves collared in 2018 than in prior years,” she wrote. “Improved mortality detection is the likeliest explanation for the increased absolute number of mortalities in 2018.”
But wolf advocates were alarmed by the statistics, calling the numbers “unsustainable.”
“The bottom line is something has to change if they’re going to meet their goals,” said Bryan Bird, director of the Defenders of Wildlife’s Southwest Program.
The Fish and Wildlife Service’s Mexican wolf recovery plan stipulates that the U.S. population reaching an average of 320 individuals sustained over several years would constitute recovery.
Four of the wolves – three males and one female – found dead in November belonged to packs in southwestern New Mexico. The fifth dead wolf was a single male.
The causes of death for the wolves this year have not yet been released, but past Fish and Wildlife Service data indicate that 55 percent of the animals found dead in previous years were illegally killed.
Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity said it’s likely some of those that died this year were killed illegally, and he is hopeful the Fish and Wildlife Service will more aggressively pursue and prosecute the perpetrators.
“We have these ungodly numbers of illegal wolf killings and a minuscule number of convictions,” Robinson said.
Killing a Mexican wolf can result in criminal penalties of up to $50,000 and jail time.
A Catron County man was sentenced in May for clubbing a wolf to death with a shovel in 2015, and an Arizona man was sentenced in November for a 2017 wolf killing.
Cattle deaths also high
This year is also on track to be the deadliest for stock owned by cattle ranchers in New Mexico, Arizona and the Native American reservations in the wolf’s recovery range.
As of Nov. 30, there have been 66 confirmed wolf depredations this year, compared with 36 in 2017.
“That doesn’t surprise me at all,” said Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association.
Cowan said one rancher in Catron County told her he has lost 48 grown cows this year, he believes due to wolves.
Other members of the association have reported calf crops – the percentage of calves produced within a herd each calving season relative to the number of breeding females and that survive to weaning age – at levels well below normal.
While a normal calf crop is around 80-90 percent, Cowan said she’s heard reports of 21 percent calf crops in wolf-inhabited areas.
“This wolf program has been an unmitigated disaster for the ranching community since its inception 20 years ago,” Cowan said. “The perception that people are getting paid for their losses is a complete fallacy.”