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By Rosie McCall
Mexican wolves (Canis lupus baileyi) saw a boost in 2019, with numbers increasing 24 percent. This brings the total up to 163 wild animals or more, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) reported.
Wildlife officials identified 76 wolves in Arizona and 87 in New Mexico, up from the 131 wolves counted at the end of 2018. According to the FWS, there are at least 42 packs of two or more individuals, and a further 10 lone wolves. Of the 28 packs that have been monitored since last spring, a minimum of 21 contained pups.
Meanwhile, mortality rates appear to be down. Fourteen deaths were recorded last year, a 33 percent drop from the 21 recorded in 2018.
“The count shows we have more wolves, more breeding pairs and more pups born in the wild than ever before,” Amy Lueders, Regional Director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Albuquerque, New Mexico, said in a statement.
“This is the second year we have seen a significant increase in the wild population of Mexican wolves, a success that is directly tied to the science-based, on-the-ground management efforts of the Interagency Field Team.”
“Wolves are naturally prolific animals,” Michael Robinson, Senior Conservation Advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, told Newsweek. “Annual population increases at this rate and even higher have been recorded in other wolf populations where initial wolf numbers are low and available habitat and prey are high.”
But, he adds, the recovery of the Mexican wolf has been helped by government efforts to “artificially feed” some wild wolves to prevent attacks on livestock. He also notes that the government used to actively trap and shoot wolves in the name of protecting livestock—a practice that has declined over the last ten years or so.
Craig Miller, Senior Southwest representative for Defenders of Wildlife, told Newsweek the jump in wolf numbers is “a testament to hard work and dedication despite opposition in the region.”
He credits cooperation and improving partnerships between states, federal agencies, the White Mountain and San Carlos Apache Tribes and nonprofits as well as wolf country ranchers and private citizens, but notes the figures in themselves do not tell the whole story.
“While this year’s overall increase in numbers is encouraging, it masks a serious problem: The lack of genetic diversity and increasing inbreeding within the wild population,” said Miller.
Since 2014, captive-born pups have been introduced to dens in an effort to boost genetic diversity in the wild population—the process is called “cross-fostering.”
Last year, 12 pups were taken to five dens and by April 2020, the FWS expects three more of these cross-fostered animals will reach sexual maturity. However, authorities have stopped short of introducing well-bonded adult wolves that could provide more immediate relief and inject new blood into the gene pool at a much faster rate.
Instead, “brother and sister equivalents” are continuing to breed, exacerbating the inbreeding problem, said Miller.
“If the states would like to see successful recovery of the Mexican gray wolf, as they have stated, then they must reverse their resistance to these releases and begin planning cooperative actions in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service now, while there is still time to save this struggling, genetically-imperiled wild population,” he added.
Robinson agreed, telling Newsweek inbreeding is the biggest threat currently facing Mexican wolves.
“The most important measure would be to resume the releases of well-bonded wolf pairs with pups to increase genetic diversity,” he said.
The Mexican wolf is the smallest and most endangered subspecies of gray wolf in the U.S., and was almost hunted to extinction in the twentieth century. The species was saved from the brink after authorities captured the last “five survivors” in the late 1970s, the Center of Biological Diversity. The wolves were bred in captivity and their descendants rewilded in 1998.
“That limited genetic diversity has been conserved as best as possible in the captive population,” said Robinson. “But mismanagement of the wild population has reduced the genetic diversity to the point that, on average, the Mexican wolves in the wild in the U.S. are as related to each other as if they were full siblings.”
Conservationists say that while the increase in numbers is good news, much more needs to be done to ensure the future of America’s Mexican gray wolf population to ensure it is self-sustaining.
This includes more ambitious population targets and tougher restrictions on removing wolfs on the grounds of nuisance behavior. Last month, reports revealed wildlife managers were investigating the death of three Mexican wolves said to be responsible for a number of livestock kills.
“The Mexican gray wolf is one of North America’s most endangered mammals and they play an important role in the Southwestern ecosystem,” said Miller, explaining they keep deer and elk populations and redistribute nutrients through the carcasses of their prey among other things.
“This recovery opportunity presents a rare and important opportunity for us to learn how to work better together to “right” a “wrong” of the past.”