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Mexican gray wolf population increases

A Mexican gray wolf runs through the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico, in this file photo. (Source: Jim Peaco/National Park Service)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The number of Mexican gray wolves in the wild jumped by 12 percent in the past year, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials said Monday.

There are 131 wolves in the wild in New Mexico and Arizona, according to the Mexican Wolf Interagency Field Team, a task force comprising federal, state and international partners. From November through January, the team conducted ground counts of the wolves in both states and in February conducted aerial counts.

“The survey results indicate the Mexican wolf program is helping save an endangered subspecies,” said Amy Lueders, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Southwest Region. “The Mexican wolf has come back from the brink of extinction, thanks to scientific management and the dedicated work of a lot of partners. With continued support and research, we can continue to make progress in Mexican wolf recovery.”

Among the team’s findings: The 131 wolves are nearly evenly distributed – 64 in Arizona and 67 in New Mexico. Last year, the team documented 117 of the animals.

“This is a relief,” Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity told the Journal. “But the Mexican gray wolf still faces peril.”

Robinson, a critic of how the Fish and Wildlife Service has carried out the program, said there are continuing concerns about the lack of genetic diversity among the wolves. He said too few captive wolves have been released into the wild.

Robinson also said the species remains threatened by the removal of wolves from the wild by the Fish and Wildlife Service and by illegal killings.

He was critical of the removal of two wolves from the wild in Catron County last month after attacks on livestock there. A removal order was issued for a third that approved the use of lethal force. Robinson and other wildlife advocates later requested the release of the wolves, which were taken to Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge in northern Socorro County.

Fish and Wildlife Service officials said they are addressing the lack of genetic diversity through cross-fostering: taking days-old pups born in captivity and placing them in packs in the wild.

Jim deVos, assistant director of wildlife management for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, said the process is “bearing fruit.”

“One of the key recovery criteria addresses the need for increasing genetic diversity within the wild population,” deVos said. “Using the proven approach of cross-fostering, the Interagency Field Team documented survival of no fewer than three fostered pups from 2018 fostering events.”

The team last spring placed eight captive pups into four wild dens to boost the genetic variability in the wild population. The team began cross-fostering in 2014.

This year’s findings include:

n There are a minimum of 32 packs of wolves (two or more animals), and seven individuals.

n A minimum of 18 packs had pups; 16 of these packs had pups that survived to the end of the year.

• A minimum of 81 pups were born in 2018, and at least 47 survived to the end of the year, a 58 percent survival rate.

• The population growth occurred despite 21 documented deaths last year.

• Eleven wolves were captured during the aerial operations.

• Seventy-nine wolves – 60 percent of the population – wore functioning radio collars. The collars help researchers manage and monitor the population, and are vital to collecting scientific information.

Working with the Mexican government, the service in 1977 began developing a captive breeding program to restore numbers. It started with seven wolves.

If the Mexican gray wolf population averages 320 in the wild in the U.S. over an eight-year period, the animal could be removed from the endangered species list, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.