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Two newborn wolf pups released into a wild den

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has successfully placed two wolf pups born in captivity in Missouri into a wild wolf den in New Mexico – a milestone achieved over the state’s opposition to such releases.

A wild wolf in Catron County with her own, young litter of five adopted the 9-day-old pups last Saturday, according to Fish and Wildlife. The adoption marked the first time the agency successfully fostered endangered Mexican wolf pups born in captivity into a wild den.

Fish and Wildlife has been monitoring breeding pairs in New Mexico and Arizona in hopes of pairing pups born in captivity with a wild litter. The surrogate mother wolf was being tracked by radio collar.

Vida, one of two Mexican wolf pups that were born in captivity in Missouri, was placed with a wild wolf mother and her litter in a den in Catron County. (Courtesy of Endangered Wolf Center)

Vida, one of two Mexican wolf pups that were born in captivity in Missouri, was placed with a wild wolf mother and her litter in a den in Catron County. (Courtesy of Endangered Wolf Center)

With this “cross-fostering” effort, Fish and Wildlife has made good on its promise to carry out wolf releases despite the state having refused the agency a permit to do so. When New Mexico Game and Fish last year denied the federal government permits to release wolves, Fish and Wildlife vowed it would pursue its recovery program under federal mandate.

The Endangered Species Act requires the federal government to recover the Mexican wolf. Fish and Wildlife this week agreed in a court settlement to develop a long-overdue recovery plan by 2017 that will define what “recovery” means in terms of wolf numbers and habitat.

New Mexico recently put the Fish and Wildlife on notice that it will sue unless the agency backs off its wolf release plan, which it calls “unpermitted and illegal.” Fish and Wildlife’s plan includes cross-fostering pups and also the release of a pack of wolves to the wild in New Mexico this year.

The federal agency “blatantly disregarded state’s rights when they released Mexican wolves into New Mexico without obtaining the necessary state permits,” Game and Fish said in a statement, adding the department must “remain the primary authority in all matters involving wildlife management in New Mexico for the benefit and best interest of our citizens.”

Historically, Game and Fish often approved permits for wolf releases in New Mexico since the reintroduction program began in 1998 but that stopped last year after the Game Commission began voicing concerns about the program’s management, particularly the Fish and Wildlife’s inability to put forth a recovery plan. The current, badly outdated recovery plan dates to 1982.

“I’m really glad the state is putting their foot down because so many people have been irreparably harmed by this program,” said Laura Schneberger, president of the Gila Livestock Growers Association, which represents dozens of Catron and Sierra county ranchers who oppose the wolf reintroduction program.

Wolves have been known to prey on cattle.

“Two nine-day-old Mexican wolf pups were moved from the more genetically diverse captive population and placed into a den with a similarly aged litter in the wild,” Fish and Wildlife said in its own statement. “The intent is for these newly released pups to be raised in the wild by experienced wolves and ultimately contribute to the gene diversity of the wild population by becoming successful, breeding adults.”

The St. Louis-based Endangered Wolf Center flew the just-born wolf pups – a male named Lindbergh and a female named Vida – to New Mexico to be placed with a new litter here. Regina Mossotti, director of animal care and conservation at the center, called cross-fostering “a unique and innovative tool.”

“It increases the population size but it also increases genetics,” she said. “With less than 100 animals in the wild, genetics is a really important thing.”

When cross-fostering is successful, the surrogate mother will adopt and raise the pups as her own. Fish and Wildlife has said that the technique is one way to improve the genetic diversity of the wild wolf population.

There were 97 wolves in the wild in New Mexico and Arizona at last count in early 2016, down from 110 wolves the prior year, according to Fish and Wildlife. According to the census, 47 of the wolves counted were found in New Mexico, largely in the Gila National Forest.

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