PHOENIX — Things are looking up for the endangered Mexican Gray Wolf, which suffered setbacks during the last year and the year before. The number of wild Mexican wolves was stagnant, and several died because of killing or undetermined causes.
This year, however, the species has staged a comeback. The Mexican Wolf Interagency Field Team (IFT) a task force comprising federal, state and international partners, counted a 12 percent increase in the animal’s numbers — 131 Mexican wolves currently roam Arizona and New Mexico, up from last year’s 117.
Both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Arizona Game and Fish expressed cautious optimism that they’ve finally hit the right formula for maintaining and growing the wolf’s numbers in the wild with a long-term goal of two thriving populations in both the United States and Mexico.
“The numbers highlight the wolf’s progress in the wild,” said Jim deVos, assistant director of Wildlife Management for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. “The results of this census are very important as they reflect the great progress being made in the recovery of the Mexican wolf in the United States. The increase of about 12 percent in the Mexican wolf population is not an isolated year, but rather a continuum of increases over the last 10 years.”
Amy Lueders, regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Southwest Region, praised the work of multiple agencies to save the Mexican wolf.
“The survey results indicate the Mexican wolf program is helping save an endangered subspecies,” she said. “The Mexican wolf has come back from the brink of extinction, thanks to scientific management and the dedicated work of a lot of partners.”
The Mexican wolf is the rarest subspecies of gray wolf in North America. It is listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. Once common throughout portions of the southwestern United States and Mexico, it was all but eliminated from the wild by the 1970s.
Working with the Mexican government, the Service in 1977 began developing a captive breeding program to restore the wolf’s numbers. It started with seven wolves, aiming for the day the program could release wolves into the wild. That day came in 1998, when the Service released 11 wolves within a range called the Mexican Wolf Experimental Population Area in Arizona and New Mexico.
In 2011, the program expanded to Mexico with the release of wolves in the Sierra Madre Occidental. An estimated 30 Mexican wolves now live in the wild in Mexico. Today, approximately 280 Mexican wolves live in more than 50 facilities throughout the United States and Mexico. They contribute to the species’ recovery and genetic diversity.
Michael Robinson, a senior conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the boost in numbers was encouraging, but more needs to be done to increase genetic diversity and prevent a backslide.
“It’s heartening that the population of these endangered wolves got a boost last year,” Robinson said. “To sustain the numbers, the Fish and Wildlife Service must release captive wolf families and protect them to increase the health of wolves in the wild.”
Robinson said the Center for Biological Diversity recommends releasing four captive packs in 2019 and another four in 2020 to reduce inbreeding and bolster pup survival in the wild.
“The government should be releasing Mexican gray wolves into the wild to ensure they’re on track to recover.”
Other findings from this year’s survey include:
There are a minimum of 32 packs of wolves (two or more animals), plus seven individuals.
A minimum of 18 packs had pups; 16 of these packs had pups that survived to the end of the year.
A minimum of 81 pups were born in 2018, and at least 47 survived to the end of the year. That’s a 58 percent survival rate.
The population growth occurred despite 21 documented mortalities last year.
Eleven wolves were captured during the aerial operations.
Seventy-nine wolves—60 percent of the population—wore functioning radio collars. The collars help researchers manage and monitor the population and are vital to collecting scientific information.