The number of Mexican Grey Wolves trotting through the wilds of Arizona and New Mexico jumped to 83 in 2013, a roughly 10 percent increase.
The rise in the population of the reintroduced wolves comes as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) ponders a change in the ground rules for the effort. The federal government has proposed a dramatic expansion in the area through which the wolves can wander, including all of Rim Country. Right now, biologists recapture wolves that wander outside a wild stretch of territory near Alpine.
The reintroduction effort started more than a decade ago with seven wolves born in a captive breeding program. The program struggled for years as the captive-reared wolves adjusted to the wild. In addition, many of the wolves were shot or recaptured when they came too near people or cattle or wandered away from the reintroduction area.
However, the number of wolves in the wild has nearly doubled in the past four years, said USFWS Southwest Regional Director Benjamin Tuggle.
“I’m proud of the remarkable progress in the Mexican Wolf Recovery Program and its partners have achieved in bringing the Mexican wolf back from the brink of extinction,” said Tuggle.
All 83 wolves now in the recovery area were born in the wild, which gives them a big survival edge over the captive-reared wolves. The apex predators rely heavily on the help of the pack in hunting and survival. Captive-reared animals often don’t function effectively in packs and struggle to improvise hunting techniques they would normally learn from their wild-born pack-mates.
USFWS biologists proposed the expansion of the recovery area to include most of Arizona south of I-40 in part in response to the painfully slow growth in the number of wolves in the recovery area. About half of the wolves introduced either got killed by humans or recaptured after they either left the reintroduction area or preyed on cattle.
An extended public comment period on the expanded reintroduction area ended on Dec. 17. The USFWS is now preparing an environmental impact statement on the rule change, which should be finished in the late spring. After considering comments on the impact statement, the USFWS will likely make a final decision on the rule changes in January of 2015.
The most recent population survey suggests that after a long period of stagnation, the population may finally be expanding in the current recovery area.
Arizona Game and Fish Director Larry Voyles noted “this is the third year of a greater-than-10-percent increase in the wolf population, a success directly related to our science-based, on-the-ground management. Equally important to the population growth is the fact that now 100 percent of the Mexican wolves in Arizona and New Mexico are wild-born, which is a factor that we have always considered an important milestone along the way to recovery.”
Biologists undertook an aerial survey to count the wolves, especially those fitted with radio collars. Wolves born in the wild and not wearing collars may have escaped detection. The hours of flights counted 46 wolves in New Mexico and 37 in Arizona. The count included 17 pups born in the wild during 2013.
The biologists said the 83-wolf estimate represents a minimum number, since some wolves without collars surely went undetected.
Out of the 15 known wolf packs, at least seven produced pups last year — with five breeding pairs tallied by the end of the year.
The USFWS biologists have said the existing recovery area doesn’t have enough distinct home ranges for the highly territorial wolves. Wolf packs generally drive off unattached wolves — and often won’t accept the newly reintroduced. Biologists hope that a more spread out population will grow more quickly and prove less vulnerable to problems like drought and wildfire.
The proposed rules would let the wolves wander outside of the existing recovery range and could allow the reintroduction of new wolves in places like the Hellsgate and Four Peaks wilderness areas.
Supporters say the wolves will help cull and control elk and deer herds, which can otherwise overgraze riparian areas and other vulnerable habitats. Such unhunted herds can undergo starvation-induced population crashes in hard winters and times of drought. Studies show that wolf packs also limit coyote numbers and benefit a host of other species.
In Yellowstone National Park, the introduction of wolves resulted in a sharp decline in elk populations, but a big improvement in riparian areas nibbled to the nub by the elk. The carcasses of the elk killed by the wolves also proved a boon to other scavengers like foxes and bald eagles.
However, critics of the reintroduction program say the wolves will sharply reduce the success of elk and deer hunters, who contribute significantly to the regional economy. Moreover, the wolves will likely prey on cattle and drive out of business the handful of ranchers remaining in the region.
Some critics also fear that the wolves will interbreed with dogs or coyotes and perhaps lose their fear of humans and become dangerous to humans. However, the Mexican grey wolves in the current recovery area have never attacked humans, and biologists monitor the wolves to remove from the wild any offspring of a dog-wolf mating.
USFWS officials say the environmental impact statement will document the wolves’ effect on elk and deer populations in the past decade.
The reintroduction managers have also worked to limit livestock killing by the 83 wolves in the reintroduction area.
In 2012, the USFWS with the assistance of various private groups helping cover the costs of reintroducing the wolves spent $100,000 on efforts to keep the wolves from preying upon an estimated 5,500 cattle that graze in the reintroduction area. The money went to help convert one ranch from sheep to less vulnerable cattle. The program also helps cover the costs to ranchers of shifting cattle grazing pastures away from areas where a pack has established a den to raise their young, since the wolves hunt more intensively when they’re feeding pups. The program also helps ranchers provide supplemental feed and shift pastures and provide fencing to protect calves, who remain the most vulnerable to the wolves.
The program each year also pays ranchers to offset the dozen or so cases in which ranchers have documented wolf kills of livestock — although some ranchers have complained that the payments typically cover only a fraction of their real costs.
In some cases, biologists have also put out carcasses of elk and deer killed by cars when a pack with pups runs into problems — like the loss of a dominant male or female crucial to the pack’s hunting success. The supplemental food will hopefully keep the hungry wolves from shifting to the easier-to-kill livestock when stressed.
Finally, biologists sometimes recapture and remove wolves that have acquired a taste for livestock.