The number of reintroduced Mexican gray wolves in the wild grew from 58 in 2011 to 75 in 2012, according to a federal population survey released this week.
On the other hand, the long, expensive, controversial effort to return Mexican gray wolves to the wilds of Arizona also last week generated a new round of controversy when U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists recaptured the first new wolf added to the struggling packs in years.
Still, the release of population figures on Wednesday revealed a heartening increase after years of struggle.
“One of the keys to successful Mexican wolf repatriation is increasing the percentage of the population that is wild-born, and in 2012 that percentage grew to nearly 100 percent with only one wolf on the ground that was captive-born. Wild-born wolves, compared to naïve wolves that were born in captivity, have demonstrated that they are less likely to have human and livestock interactions,” said Larry Voyles, director of the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southwest Region Director Benjamin Tuggle said, “The 2012 count of 75 wolves is very exciting. This past year we have implemented a number of management actions — in collaboration with our partners and stakeholders — that have helped reduce conflicts related to recovering a sustainable population of wolves on a working landscape.”
“Our strategy for 2013 will be to increase the genetic viability of the wild population, and implement management activities that support more wolves in the wild,” said Voyles. “Releases are one of the important tools we use for improving the genetic viability of the wild population.”
However, some critics of the reintroduction effort raised questions — while welcoming the overall increase. Despite the increase in overall numbers, the number of breeding pairs has actually decreased from six to three. In the past six years, only 11 captured wolves have been released back into the wild and dozens of once-wild wolves remain in captivity, usually after they came into contact with people, cattle or pets.
“I’m pleased that the number of Mexican gray wolves has increased for the third year in a row,” said Michael Robinson with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The decrease in the number of breeding pairs, however, is a source of concern. If wolves are truly going to return and recover in the Southwest, more wolves must be released into the wild.
“One likely factor in the improvement is a more hands-off approach by the Fish and Wildlife Service, which has not killed a wolf in response to livestock depredations in five years.”
The population count was based on both an aerial survey and ground reports, keyed on the large number of reintroduced wolves wearing radio collars. Managers said the count likely represents a minimum population number.
On the other hand, some advocates for the reintroduction effort criticized the decision to recapture Lobo M1133, just three weeks after his release into the wild in an effort to interject more genetic diversity into the wild population.
Managers of the wolf reintroduction effort had hoped the new wolf would join the “widowed” alpha female of the small Bluestem Pack near Alpine. Her mate was illegally shot to death in 2011. Instead, the biologists said the pack “rejected” the new wolf, who trotted on off into New Mexico, where the state has resisted the reintroduction effort.
So USFWS biologists recaptured the radio-collared wolf near Reserve, N.M., although he was the first new wolf released into the wild in four years.
“It is important to remember that we are working to establish a genetically sound wolf population. It’s natural that all of us, including the Service, sometimes get swept up in the story of individual wolves,” said Tuggle. “While our management efforts may involve activities that affect an individual wolf or pack, our focus must be larger than that if we are to succeed in our Mexican wolf reintroduction goals.”
Environmental groups blasted the decision to recapture the wolf — and the long delays in releasing more of the 300 wolves in captivity into the wild.
“It’s unbelievable that after four years without releasing any new wolves to the wild, that they immediately pick him up again,” said Robinson. “Both the chronic lack of releases and the recapture of this male ignore urgent pleas from scientists and conservationists to release more wolves to help the struggling population.”
USFWS officials said that the recaptured wolf will get a chance to mate with a captive, wild-born female and once she’s pregnant, they’ll release the pair together. In the past, the release of an already mated pair has proved most successful.
“This situation demonstrates why it is so important for endangered species repatriation programs to achieve reproduction in the wild. Although nearly 100 percent of Mexican wolves on the landscape are now wild-born, we are attempting to improve genetics by bringing in select captive-bred individuals and this will be challenging at best,” said Voyles. “M1133’s rejection by the pack and failure to pair, while disappointing, was neither catastrophic nor surprising. Those committed to Mexican wolf conservation will adapt, learn and try again another day or another way. Returning M1133 to captivity gives us the opportunity to generate more wolves now while preserving the possibility for a future release.”
The reintroduction effort has been hampered by complaints by ranchers and state wildlife officials that the wolves have killed and harassed cattle grazing on public lands. Several wolves have been shot, including one near Alpine last year.
In the past 15 years, the effort has established 14 small packs, with numbers far short of the 100-wolf target originally set for 2008.
The release of Lobo M1133 had seemed a hopeful sign, after biologists transported him by snowmobile to a release site in the Bluestem Pack’s territory. They released him without the customary time spent in a pen, trying to take advantage of the impetus of the breeding season.
Lobo M1133 was a needed infusion of genetic diversity into a wolf population that remains at fewer than 60 despite years of effort.
Some studies have raised concerns about possible inbreeding, since most of the wolves in the wild are descendants of an initial group of five. Biologists report concerns about small litter sizes and low pup-survival rates as possible signs of a lack of genetic diversity.
The program has been plagued by repeated shooting of the wolves in a region where ranchers oppose the return of the potential cattle killers.
Last spring, biologists located the body of a Mexican wolf pup next to Forest Road 249 west of Alpine, born to the Hawk’s Nest Pack in 2011. A necropsy showed that the wolf had died of a single gunshot wound. The Fish and Wildlife Service has offered a $10,000 reward for information that leads to the arrest of whoever shot the wolf, with other groups offering an additional $46,000.
The Hawk’s Nest Pack still has four wolves — a male, a female and several pups and yearlings. The pack produced six pups last year and the adults managed to move all the pups out of the way of the Wallow Fire, which swept down on their den area.
Biologists monitor most of the wolf packs with signals from radio collars. The Hawk’s Nest Pack had no documented cattle kills and no run-ins with humans.
However, other wolves have killed cattle. Groups will pay ranchers for the cost of lost cattle if biologists conclude the reintroduced wolves are to blame. However, ranchers insist that wolves have probably killed calves that simply go missing, without leaving behind evidence that allow the rangers to get repaid for the loss.
The status report for 2012 issued by the USFWS documented several cases involving the killing of cattle by wolves.
One involved a cow killed near Torriete Lakes in New Mexico. A second involved a cow killed by an uncollared wolf north of Mangas, N.M. Investigators blamed coyotes for the deaths of two calves south of Red Hill in New Mexico. They also investigated the deaths of three calves near the Petrified Forest National Park in New Mexico, but although they couldn’t establish the cause of death — they did clear wolves and coyotes of the blame.
Considered keystone predators that affect the health of an entire ecosystem, wolf packs control populations of deer, elk and other prey. Studies in Yellowstone that tracked the reintroduction of timber wolves there found the wolves kept populations of their prey populations from tripping vegetation from the area and benefitted a host of other animals that scavenged from their kills, including coyotes, foxes, golden eagles and bald eagles.
However, the reintroduction of wolves into cattle country remains controversial. Ranchers exterminated the large wolf population in Arizona when they set their cattle loose on millions of acres of public lands. Since the wolves hunted in loud packs, they proved relatively easy to hunt down and eliminate. That contrasts with coyotes, whose numbers exploded once humans eliminated wolves — their mortal enemies and chief competitors.
The Mexican gray wolf remains the rarest and most genetically distinct subspecies of wolf. About the size of a German shepherd and weighing between 60 and 80 pounds, the Mexican gray wolf once roamed from Texas across New Mexico and Arizona, with range extensions down into Mexico and up into Colorado. By the 1950s, hunters had all but eliminated them from the wild.
Today about 340 survive in 40 scattered captive breeding facilities and between 50 and 60 in the wild, as a result of reintroduction efforts that started with just five wolves captured in the wild between 1977 and 1980.
Biologists had hoped by 2008 to have established a breeding population of at least 100 wolves in a sprawling wilderness area that runs along the Arizona-New Mexico border near Alpine.
However, reacting to ranchers’ fears, New Mexico refused to cooperate with the reintroduction areas out of a fear that a growing wolf population would harm already struggling public lands cattle ranchers.
The wolves remain protected as endangered species, but the federal government agreed to categorize the reintroduced wolves as an “experimental” population — which means ranchers can kill them if they’re attacking their cattle and the federal biologists have in the past removed any individuals or packs from the population if they kill cattle or harass humans. However, that issue has provokes repeated lawsuits — as have many elements of the reintroduction program.
“Fifteen years after the beginning of the reintroduction program, mismanagement, unnecessary persecution of wolves and political interference in releasing wolves has resulted in just three breeding pairs in the wild and ongoing loss of genetic diversity,” said Robinson. “It’s noteworthy that reintroduction of wolves to the northern Rocky Mountains started just three years before the Southwestern reintroduction and at last count there were 106 breeding pairs in the north. We hope this year’s increase is the start of the Mexican wolf recovery program finally taking off.”