PHOENIX – The number of Mexican gray wolves roaming eastern Arizona and western New Mexico increased by eight to 83 wolves in the past year, according to a recent survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Noting that the population has increased for four straight years, federal and state officials said in a news release that the recovery program has saved the Mexican gray wolf from extinction. However, wildlife advocates said that the effort hasn’t gone far enough to ensure the species’ genetic diversity.
“I’m happy we have seen an increase in population for four years in a row,” said Michael Robinson, a conservation advocate for the Tucson-based Center of Biological Diversity. “What’s worrisome is the number of breeding pairs.”
A group of seven wolves was released in the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area in 1998, starting the reintroduction program. Since then, the U.S. Wildlife and Fish Service has been managing and keeping track of the wolf population while also introducing captive wolves into the wild.
Robinson said there isn’t enough genetic variability among the wild wolves because officials haven’t released enough captive wolves.
“The original genetic diversity has not been maximized, and this means smaller litter sizes and lower pup survival rates,” he said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service didn’t respond to an interview request by late Monday afternoon, but its news release said the agency plans more releases to address genetic diversity. That includes releasing two more wolves this spring, it said.
Federal officials held public hearings late last year on a proposal to expand the wolves’ recovery area in Arizona and New Mexico and allow the release of captive wolves in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest. Releases are currently allowed only in Arizona’s Apache National Forest.
Officials released a wolf into the wild last year, hoping it would mate with an alpha female whose mate died. But after that didn’t happen, the department trapped the male wolf and took it back into captivity.
Eva Sargent, the Tucson-based director of Southwest programs for Defenders of Wildlife, said federal officials should release wolves into areas beyond Arizona and New Mexico to reduce inbreeding and expand the species’ range.
“For years they haven’t released enough wolves,” Sargent said. “This is a job they are legally obligated to do.”
However, the Arizona Game and Fish Department, which is collaborating with federal officials on the reintroduction, maintains that its efforts are supporting the growth of the Mexican gray wolf population.
“Equally important to the population’s growth is the fact that now 100 percent of the Mexican wolves in Arizona and New Mexico are wild-born, which is a factor we have always considered an important milestone along the way to recovery,” Game and Fish Director Larry Voyles said in the Fish and Wildlife Service news release.