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Wolf Census Up 16 Percent

LAS CRUCES – The Mexican gray wolf population in southeast Arizona and southwest New Mexico grew by 16 percent in 2011, bringing the total count to 58, according to the annual census conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The increase from 50 in 2010 makes the first time since 2003 that the number of Mexican gray wolves, reintroduced to the wild in 1998, has grown for two consecutive years, noted Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity.

Several conservation groups, however, noted that an environmental study before the 1998 release predicted there would be more than 100 wolves in the wild by the end of 2006, and they called for new releases of captive-bred wolves.

Benjamin Tuggle, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Southwest Regional director, said he was pleased with the population growth, but added that the agency is focusing on the “biggest threats to Mexican wolf recovery” – limited genetic diversity and illegal killings.

“We’ve made some incremental progress. … We are no longer in a declining population,” Tuggle said. “We want to celebrate the victories that we have, but that doesn’t mean that we should rest on our laurels.”

Tuggle declined to provide details about any new releases Fish and Wildlife is considering this year, saying he preferred to talk to Arizona Game and Fish officials first.

Wolf advocates have called for new releases of captive-bred wolves to increase the genetic diversity of lobos on the ground, a factor believed to increase litter sizes and improve pup survival rates. Since 2008 Fish and Wildlife, has released only one captive-bred wolf .

“We quickly need more wolves in the Gila to prevent a genetic bottleneck and grow a healthy population,” said Wendy Keefover, carnivore program director for WildEarth Guardians. Keefover said it was “time to smash open the pens” and release dozens of wolves into the wild.

In Catron County, long a hotbed of opposition to the wolf recovery effort, Commissioner Hugh McKeen said there are already too many wolves for his taste. In light of recent incidents in which wolves frightened a Beaverhead-area mother and her two children, McKeen said the commission is considering adopting an ordinance aimed at dealing with menacing wolves.

“It’s the extreme environmental crowd that wants them, and their purpose is basically to put ranchers out of business,” McKeen said. “No, no, I don’t want the wolves here at all.”

A total of 38 pups were born in the wild this year, but only 18 survived through the end of December, Tuggle said. The addition of young wolves was offset by the deaths of nine wolves, including three that were illegally shot and one female killed by federal agents Dec. 14 after she lingered around a Catron County home and eluded capture. Not every wolf from 2010 was accounted for during the December census.

The Service counted 26 wolves in six packs in New Mexico and 32 wolves in six packs in Arizona.

— This article appeared on page C1 of the Albuquerque Journal