With threats of disease, malnutrition and even inbreeding, the deck can be stacked against a Mexican gray wolf pup.
Federal wildlife managers have long been troubled by the survival rates of wild-born pups, so they’ve started experimenting in an effort to boost the population as they reintroduce the endangered predator to the American Southwest.
Biologists earlier this month transplanted a pair of 2-week-old pups born in a large litter to another pack of wolves with a smaller litter and more rearing experience.
The cross-fostering technique has worked with red wolves on the East Coast. This marks the first time it’s being tried with Mexican gray wolves.
Benjamin Tuggle, head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Southwest Region, said the goal is not only to grow the population, but also to have wolves that are genetically diverse and can steer clear of trouble while living in the wild.
“Cross-fostering is just one of the management tools we can use to improve the genetic health of the wild population,” he said.
Reintroducing Mexican wolves to the forests of southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona has been a challenge. The 15-year effort has been hampered by everything from illegal shootings to court disputes over how the program should be managed. Ranchers and county officials throughout the region have also been vocal critics, saying the wolves threaten their livelihoods.
The Fish and Wildlife Service over the past year has been careful about choosing which wolves to pair together, when to pair them up and where to release them.
The pups being cross-fostered were the result of one of the agency’s match-making efforts earlier this spring. Their parents were released in Arizona together in April, but separated soon after. The female established a den and had a total of six pups in early May.
Since the female had no previous experience in the wild and no mate to help her with hunting and rearing, biologists determined the pups would not likely survive.
The female and four of her pups were taken into captivity, where they were reintroduced to another male in hopes of them forming a pack that can be released into the wild later this year.
As for the two foster pups and their wild pack, biologists are monitoring them remotely through radio telemetry signals as to not disturb them. Officials say it will be some time before they know whether the experiment was successful.