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By Alex Devoid
A male Mexican gray wolf tries to elude capture inside an enclosure at Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico on Nov. 8, 2017. The wolf was to be transported to the Endangered Wolf Center in Eureka, Missouri, for breeding purposes.
The endangered Mexican gray wolf population leveled off in 2017 after showing stronger growth the year before.
The population grew by at least one, to 114 wolves in the wild throughout Arizona and New Mexico. There are 22 wolf packs in the two states.
Although the 2017 gains were marginal, it remains the highest count since reintroducing captive wolves to the U.S. began in 1998. But while the gains were higher in recent years, the total population has only grown by four since 2014.
At least 63 wolves were counted in Arizona in 2017, the same as the year before, state and federal wildlife agencies reported. The Mexican government recorded about 31 wolves roaming in their northern states last year.
The wildlife agencies conduct aerial and ground surveys each year to document the number of wolves in the wild.
“While the 2017 numbers are not what we were hoping for, this is not the sole metric to measure progress in Mexican wolf recovery,” Jim deVos of the Arizona Game and Fish Department said in a statement.
“While 1998 seems like a long time ago, it is important to remember that there were no Mexican wolves in the wild just a few years ago,” he said, “and yet today there are healthy, stable and increasing populations, marking progress toward recovery.”
Recovery efforts progressing slowly
The Mexican gray wolf is the rarest subspecies of gray wolf in North America. It all but vanished from the landscape in the 20th century with the help of government-sponsored extermination programs intended to remove threats to livestock.
Recovery efforts began in the 1970s, but progress has been slow.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a long-awaited recovery plan last year that would delist the wolf when its population in the wild averages 320 in the U.S. and 200 in Mexico when counted over eight years.
Fewer Mexican gray wolf pups in the U.S. survived last year than in 2016, accounting for the low population growth, according to the agencies. Nearly twice as many pups survived in 2016.
Officials also removed 10 wolves from the wild, a measure they take commonly due to wolf conflicts with livestock, and documented 12 wolf deaths.
Illegal killings are a major threat to wolves, according to the recovery plan. The number of these deaths caused by illegal killings, however, is still under investigation, said John Bradley, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Inbreeding is another major threat to the species, according to the plan. To address it, officials release captive-bred wolves into the wild. They also move wild wolves to other wild populations to breed with the wolves there.
Officials release pups from a captive breeding program to live with new packs in the wild. It’s a method called cross fostering, used to curb inbreeding and increase genetic diversity by injecting new blood into the wild population.
DeVos pointed out that some cross-fostered pups have grown to have pups of their own.
He called it a “major milestone,” but Michael Robinson, a wolf advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, said it’s too early to say if this approach really works.
The meager growth of four wolves since 2014 shows that federal and state wildlife managers should be doing something differently, he said.
“This is an experimental procedure that should not substitute for releasing family groups,” Robinson said.
Advocates say numbers are too low
Environmental groups have sued the agency claiming the plan sets dangerously low population thresholds and inadequately protects Mexican gray wolves from inbreeding and illegal killings.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz, meanwhile, called the the recovery plan overly burdensome on ranchers and rural communities, in a statement upon the plan’s publication. He introduced a bill earlier this year that would delist the species with 100 wolves in the wild.
As the recovery plan stands, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates taking 25 to 35 years to recover the Mexican gray wolf, costing taxpayers and non-governmental groups in the U.S. and Mexico over $170 million through 2043.
But last year’s lack of growth only increases wolf advocates’ worries that the plan is insufficient.
“These are one of the most persecuted and misunderstood animals of all time,” Bryan Bird, the Southwest program director for Defenders of Wildlife, said in a statement.
His organization and the Center for Biological Diversity are two of the environmental groups suing the federal government over the recovery plan.
“These numbers clearly show that more work needs to be done to recover the Mexican gray wolf,” he said.