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Population of Mexican gray wolves on the rise

The population of endangered Mexican wolves in the wild rose compared with a year ago, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Fish and Wildlife counted at least 113 Mexican wolves in the wild in Arizona and southwestern New Mexico, up from 97 wolves a year ago. The service collects data for the annual census through on-the-ground research in November and December, and in aerial surveys during the first two months of this year.

“We are encouraged by these numbers, but these 2016 results demonstrate we are still not out of the woods with this experimental population and its anticipated contribution to Mexican wolf recovery,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service southwest regional director Benjamin Tuggle in a statement.

“Our goal is to achieve an average annual growth rate of 10 percent in the Mexican wolf population.”

Last year, Fish and Wildlife documented a decline in the population, due to a high level of mortality and a lower pup survival rate. The agency has been working to recover the species since it nearly went extinct in the 1970s.

The population of Mexican wolves that exists today, in the wild and in captivity, is derived from just seven animals. The small number of founding members has limited the population’s genetic diversity and resulted in significant inbreeding.

“The Service and our partners remain focused and committed to making this experimental population genetically healthy and robust so that it can contribute to recovery of the Mexican wolf in the future,” Tuggle said in the statement.

Bryan Bird, Southwest program director for Defenders of Wildlife, said that, while it is “good news” that the population count is up, “these numbers are still very small compared to what is necessary to recover the subspecies.”

“The Mexican gray wolf count is still too low for recovery and a lack of genetic diversity in the wild is a recipe for extinction,” he said.

Biologists in both the U.S. and Mexico have been working for years to carefully breed Mexican wolves to improve their diversity but, once released into the wild, inbreeding is a risk. Wolf advocates say releasing wolves from captivity is crucial to improving genetics in the wild.

Fish and Wildlife has faced significant pushback from the New Mexico Game Commission, which in 2015 denied the agency a permit to release wolves into the wild in the federally designated recovery area in Grant and Catron counties.

Citing federal authority, Fish and Wildlife went ahead and released two captive-bred pups last year into a wild pack in New Mexico in a process known as cross-fostering.

Ranchers have been opposed to the wolf reintroduction program since the apex predators have been known to prey on cattle.