Wolf number up, genetic diversity still problematic

White Mountain Independent (Original) Posted February 24, 2017 by Trudy Balcom

APACHE COUNTY — The annual census of the Mexican gray wolf population is complete, and it shows an uptick in the number of wild wolves across eastern Arizona and western New Mexico.

Last year’s count showed a minimum of 97 wild wolves across the region; this year 113 wolves were counted between November and February, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) press release issued Feb. 17.

This is the largest number of wolves documented in the count since wolf reintroduction first began in 1998.

The count is conducted by field biologists on the ground, using radio and GPS collar data, and with aerial surveys conducted by helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft. The number issued at the completion of the count is called a “minimum.”

“A minimum count is the number of wolves we visibly saw; we know there are more wolves out there, but we don’t have a maximum number,” explained John Bradley, public information officer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The count documented a total of 21 wolf packs, with at least 50 wolves in New Mexico and 63 in Arizona. A total of 50 surviving wild-born wolf pups born in 2016 were part of the total population count.

A net growth in the population of at least 16 wolves is in line with goals for the recovery of the wolf in the wild.

“Our goal is to achieve an average annual growth rate of 10 percent in the Mexican wolf population,” said Dr. Benjamin Tuggle, Southwest regional director for USFWS in the press release.

Population numbers for the wolves have fluctuated since 1998. A milestone of 100 wolves was first reached in 2010, when 110 wolves were counted. In 2015, the number dropped back to 97. Even though the count is completed in February, the number of wolves counted is attributed to the previous year, so the numbers for the count completed earlier this month will be designated as the 2016 count.

Eleven wolf deaths from 2016 are under investigation by the USFWS law enforcement agency, according to the press release.

Numbers up, diversity down

Although the Mexican wolf population numbers are up, wolf managers continue to struggle with a lack of genetic diversity among the wild wolves.

Many of the wolves currently in the wild are descendants of the Bluestem Pack — an Arizona pack that featured a productive alpha female. Although four different mating pairs cycled through the Bluestem Pack in the early years, nearly every wild Mexican wolf in both states carries the genetics of this pack, and wolf managers want to change this.

“... (O)n average, individuals within the population are as related as full siblings,” an USFWS Mexican wolf planning document states.

According to the Initial Release and Translocation Proposal for 2017 — a planning document that was issued in early February — two wolf pairs with pups may be released into the Gila Wilderness and the Also Leopold Wilderness in New Mexico in early summer to foster better genetic diversity. The release of these wolves is being carefully planned to minimize potential livestock conflicts, according to FWS documents.

In Arizona, more genetically diverse wolf pups born to mothers in captivity will be placed into the dens of wild wolf mothers with pups of the same age later this spring. The technique, known as cross-fostering, is another method for increasing genetic diversity in the wild pack. New wolf releases have been banned by Arizona Game and Fish Department for some time.

Rich Fredrickson, a Montana-based independent geneticist who has periodically contracted to work on the Mexican wolf reintroduction project, says that the current genetic conundrum among the wild Mexican wolf population is the result of a wolf removal policy instituted by the agencies managing the animals.

A three-strikes rule was initiated against wolves that preyed on livestock from 2005 to 2007. The offending wolves, along with their offspring, were removed from the wild if they attacked livestock three times.

“There was a relatively genetically diverse population in 2005. Then there were intensive removals, then no new releases. That’s how it got to be how it is now,” Fredrickson explained.

USFWS documents show that 16 to 18 wolves were removed from the wild each year between 2005-07, at a time when total minimum population estimates were 35 to 52.

“All of the most genetically important packs were removed,” he said.

Frederickson called the removals “draconian.” He believes that if the wolves had been left undisturbed, the wild population would have grown and the genetics improved.

“The upshot, in my opinion, is Mexican wolves have not been allowed to succeed. The main constraint has been humans, not genetics,” he said.

Jim Heffelfinger, wildlife science coordinator for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, is a wildlife biologist who also works to improve Mexican wolf genetics. While Fredrickson believes the situation with the genetics of the wild wolves is more serious, Heffelfinger is not convinced there is a problem. The two men know one another and have worked together on numerous occasions.

“We do disagree with Rich. He’s been a strong advocate that genetics is a huge problem,” Heffelfinger said.

Heffelfinger also believes that the removals that occurred in 2005-07 were “too aggressive.” But he said they came at a time when wolf attacks on livestock were threatening the future of the wolf in the wild.

“It was a time when there was rapidly decreasing tolerance of wolves. People felt the whole project was in jeopardy. Captive-born wolves were creating a lot of problems,” he said.

Heffelfinger believes that fostering a tolerance with residents in the wolf re-introduction area is the real key to the wolf’s future success.

He’s not as concerned about potential problems related to genetics, such as health problems or deformities, that can occur. He’s more worried about the loss of genetics from illegal shooting of wolves.

“Mexican wolves have shown no physical problems at all. It’s just not the most important issue. The most important issue is social tolerance,” Heffelfinger said.