We’re optimistic that when the 2019 Mexican wolf population tally is released in the coming days, we’ll see an uptick in the number of Mexican gray wolves in the wild. Any increase in the total number of breeding pairs and pups is a commendable achievement, and, if that is what the data shows, the Fish and Wildlife Service will be justifiably proud that its recent recovery efforts are moving in the right direction.
Unfortunately, as the wolf population increases, it becomes harder to provide the influx of genetic diversity that the lobos so desperately need. Simply put, a single drop of water loses its significance as the bucket gets full; it’s easier to effect change in smaller populations than in larger ones.
The lobo population’s genetic diversity has been declining, resulting in higher levels of inbreeding among the wild wolves, and decreasing their adaptive potential and their robustness as a species. The captive population, on the other hand, retains higher levels of diversity, and those genes are critical to actually saving the species, because it isn’t simply a matter of more wolves on the ground. Wolves need to be as genetically diverse as possible to be fully recovered.
The best way to accomplish the necessary genetic boost is to release well-bonded adult pairs, something that hasn’t been done since 2006. There are appropriate wolves available in the captive breeding program, a network of zoo and research facilities around the country where approximately 240 lobos are held.
These wolf families are ready to hit the ground running in Arizona and New Mexico, if only the states weren’t opposed to it.
In fact, Arizona and New Mexico are the major stumbling block for wolf recovery these days, because both are allowing the Fish and Wildlife Service only to conduct cross-fostering in their states. Cross-fostering entails adding captive pups to wild dens and hoping the parent wolves don’t notice. Even when cross-fostering is successful, the low survivorship of puppies and the number of years until they will reach breeding age means that the genetic benefit of these little lobos is years away. If the wolf population continues to grow during that time, the little drops of lobo diversity won’t have as much of an effect on the water in the bucket.
New Mexico Department of Fish and Game formally rejoined the Mexican gray wolf recovery program in November 2019, claiming it wants to support full recovery of the species. If that’s true, NMDFG should be supporting the most efficient way to address the genetic crisis and allow releases of well-bonded wolf pairs into the wild this summer. There’s no time to wait.