Wild wolf population stalled at 114

The Payson Roundup (Original) Posted February 27, 2018 by Peter Aleshire

The Mexican gray wolf recovery effort has once again stalled, thanks to a high mortality rate among the pups born in the wild this year, an almost 10 percent mortality rate among adults and the continued removal of wolves from the wild population.

The annual census concluded at least 114 wolves remain in the wild, up from 113 last year. The wild wolves had 50 pups in the course of the year — but only 26 survived.

Meanwhile, 12 adults were killed, many by human actions. Another 10 were removed, usually because they either may have killed livestock or behaved in a way considered threatening to humans, according to the report issued by the Mexican Wolf Interagency Field Team last week. That adds up to a nearly 50 percent mortality rate among pups and a 20 percent mortality or removal rate among adults.

The reintroduction envisioned a growth rate in the population of 10 percent annually, but the growth in the past three years has totaled about 5 percent.

Some environmental groups said genetic inbreeding could partially account for the high pup mortality, with all of the wolves descended from just seven wolves. However, they blamed a variety of other factors for the lack of population growth.

Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity blamed poor management of the existing packs, a lack of effective response to ongoing wolf poaching, and inbreeding.

The stall in the growth of the wild population appears likely to fuel the debate about the limits on the long, expensive reintroduction effort imposed last November by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The federal government rejected an earlier proposal by biologists to shoot for a population of 750 wolves in the wild in three connected populations in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado and Mexico.

Instead, the recovery plan now aims for a self-sustaining population of 320 wolves, with one population south of Interstate 40 in Arizona and New Mexico and a second population in northern Mexico. The plan could potentially allow for the reintroduction of new wolf packs on the fringes of Rim Country — including the Hellsgate and perhaps the Mazatzal Wilderness.

Ranchers and hunters objected to any expansion of the recovery area from the present territory along the Arizona-New Mexico boundary more or less centered on Alpine.

Meanwhile, two different coalitions of environmental groups in January filed lawsuits attempting to overturn the new recovery plan, arguing the federal government ignored the legal requirement to base the recovery plan on the “best science” available. The lawsuit claims the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ignored the initial recommendations of its own biologists for mostly political reasons.

The Arizona Game and Fish Department and the New Mexico Department of Fish and Game both supported sharp limits on the recovery area.

The latest population survey could support the argument that high mortality and removal rates are preventing the establishment of a self-sustaining population in the current recovery area. Biologists want to expand the recovery area because wolves are territorial and prevent other wolves from breeding in an area claimed by a given pack.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southwest Regional Director Amy Lueders said the Service remains committed to a “full recovery” for the wolves. “We all understand the challenges involved in protecting and restoring wild populations of this endangered species.”

Arizona Game and Fish Department Assistant Wildlife Management Director Jim deVos pointed out the program has made progress since 1998. “Today there are healthy, stable and increasing populations, marking progress towards recovery.”

The survey documented 22 packs of wild wolves, with at least 51 wolves in New Mexico and 63 in Arizona. The first wolves were reintroduced into the wild in the U.S. in 1998.

Another 30 wild wolves persist in northern Mexico. The first wolves were reintroduced there in 2011. One of those wolves crossed into the United States, but when the captive-born and reared wolf failed to avoid human beings, she was recaptured and shipped off to a captive breeding facility in Kansas.

In 2017, The biologists managed to capture and radio collar an additional 24 wolves, including 10 wolves not previously collared.

But environmental groups say the recovery plan will leave the wolves vulnerable to extermination. “The recovery plan was designed by politicians and anti-wolf states, not by independent biologists,” said Western Environmental Law Center attorney Matthew Bishop.

Some of the wild wolves remain uncollared and hard to track. Periodically, people report seeing wolves in Rim Country — including on the outskirts of both Payson and Star Valley. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says it knows of no wolves in the area, but can’t completely rule out one of the young, uncollared wolves may have wandered this far. One endangered gray wolf several years ago showed up at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, but was then shot by a hunter who said he mistook the wolf for a coyote. That wolf probably wandered down from the north. Some 5,700 wild gray wolves now live in the lower 48 states — including 786 in Idaho, 536 in Montana and 382 in Wyoming, 112 in Oregon, and perhaps three in California. Another 7,700 to 11,000 gray wolves live in Alaska.

The smaller Mexican gray wolves in the Southwest are all descended from seven wolves captured in the wild. Those wolves have about 280 living descendants, most of them in captive breeding programs.