Mexican wolf conservation efforts hit milestone: ‘We are seeing recovery occurring’

Mar 5, 2023, 2:00 PM
Mexican wolves (Canis lupus baileyi) are seen at the Guadalajara Zoo in Guadalajara, Mexico, on Feb...
Mexican wolves (Canis lupus baileyi) are seen at the Guadalajara Zoo in Guadalajara, Mexico, on February 3, 2023. (Photo by Ulises Ruiz / AFP) (Photo by ULISES RUIZ/AFP via Getty Images)
(Photo by ULISES RUIZ/AFP via Getty Images)

PHOENIX — The Mexican wolf was eliminated from the American Southwest during the 20th century, but recovery efforts have led to a dramatic reemergence.

Eleven wolves were reintroduced to the wild in Arizona in 1998 as part of a captive breeding program, and 25 years later, the number of animals in the area surpassed 200 with a minimum of 241 recorded in 2022. The population grew by 23% from 196 in 2021, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced.

Arizona Game and Fish Department Mexican Wolf Coordinator Jim deVos told KTAR News 92.3 FM that the last year boded well for the continued recovery of the wolf.

“We have a 10-year history now of a growing population, so it is important that we don’t look at this as a one-year anomaly,” deVos said. “This year is a bit anomalous because it was so high in comparison with others, but we are seeing recovery being achieved here in the last decade and going into the next decade.

“We believe that unless something alarming occurs … within many of the people’s lifetime who will be reading the article, they are going to see a recovered species, maybe one that can be taken off the Endangered Species List.”

There are 40 packs, which consist of two or more wolves, in New Mexico and 19 in Arizona.

Last year was the seventh in a row in which the population grew and the number of wolves has more than doubled since 2017, according to USFWS.

“In 2022, we recorded more packs, more breeding pairs, and a growing occupied range, proving we are on the path to recovery,” USFWS Mexican Wolf Recovery Coordinator Brady McGee said in the release.

At least 121 pups were born in 2022 and at least 81 survived to the end of the year, a higher percentage than average (approximately 50%), deVos said.

Conservation groups celebrated the progress but warned against calling the species recovered or close to it.

“There are so few founding animals, we must ensure actual improvements in the genetics of the wild population and that recovery continues in all areas that are suitable for the subspecies,” Defenders of Wildlife’s Senior Southwest Representative Craig Miller said in a press release.

“More Mexican gray wolves surviving in 2022 is howling good news,” Michael Robinson, senior conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a press release. “But with nearly all southwestern wolves as closely genetically related to each other as siblings, the Fish and Wildlife Service can’t pretend these animals are approaching recovery.”

DeVos said a key measure of genetic stagnation of a population is litter size, and the past year was what agencies wanted to see in that regard. He noted that genetics will continue to be a concern for the species given its closely-related roots amid the progress.

Cross fostering is a strategy implemented to assist with genetic diversity in wild packs.

Two of 11 fostered pups from captivity that were placed in wild dens were known to survive in 2022, bringing the known number of adopted wolves to 14, according to USFWS.

Approximately 380 wolves are living in 60 captive breeding facilities in the U.S. and Mexico, and the Center for Biological Diversity called for the USFWS to release well-bonded captive families into the wild to increase the gene pool.

The Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife were among a group that filed a complaint last year in Arizona against USFWS, saying a new rule by the agency did not respond to genetic threats.

Mexican wolves historically ranged throughout New Mexico, Arizona, west Texas and Mexico, but private hunting and U.S. ordered exterminations on behalf of livestock operations ended their reign. The wolves were listed as endangered in 1976 under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, though the species was already extinct north of the southern border.

The U.S. and Mexico agreed to a binational program to save the animals with a goal of setting up a self-sustaining population. In 1996, the Apache and Gila national forests in eastern Arizona and western New Mexico were deemed suitable as areas for reintroduction.

Wolves prey on native species such as elk, mule deer, white-tailed deer, javelina and rodents.

Populations are determined by the Interagency Field Team, which conducts aerial and ground surveys using remote cameras, radio collars and visual data collection.

In July, USFWS and wildlife managers in New Mexico, Arizona and Mexico signed a letter of intent to continue their work in Mexican wolf conservation.

KTAR News 92.3 FM’s Colton Krolak contributed to this story.

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Mexican wolf conservation efforts hit milestone: ‘We are seeing recovery occurring’