Endangered Mexican gray wolf population increases, but questions linger about recovery progress

The Arizona Republic (Original) Posted April 9, 2019, Updated April 10, 2019 by Priscilla Totiyapungprasert

The endangered Mexican gray wolf population is making slow but steady progress, according to the results of an annual survey.

The number of wolves in the wilds of Arizona and New Mexico grew from 117 to 131 animals, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported a 12 percent increase.

Arizona is home to 64 of the wolves and the other 67 were counted in New Mexico.

This is the highest the wolf count has been since 1998, when the U.S. government, in cooperation with state and Mexican agencies, began releasing captive-bred wolves into the wild.

It’s small but significant progress for the recovery of the Mexican gray wolf, an animal that humans had at one point completely eradicated from the U.S. Southwest.

The agency noted last year’s growth occurred despite 21 documented wolf deaths. This was also the highest number of recorded wolf deaths since reintroducing the species back into the wild.

“Wolves need two things to survive: The first is prey, like deer and elk, and the second is human tolerance,” said John Oakleaf, the field projects coordinator for the federal Mexican wolf program. He works with various organizations involved with the wolf program and tries to resolves conflicts with ranchers who are concerned about wolves preying on their livestock.

Wolves remain a polarizing subject, Oakleaf said. “They’re either deified or demonized.” He considers human activities the most serious threat to the Mexican wolf, sometimes leading to tense relations among landowners and conservationists.

Wolves were there first, but people share a landscape with them now and it’s important to find that balance, Oakleaf said. He pointed out that both rangers and conservationists have a shared goal: Neither group wants wolves hunting cattle.

Westward expansion led to wolf's demise
Westward expansion and the cattle boom of the 1800s made a deep impact on native wildlife. Mexican gray wolves once commonly roamed the southwestern United States and Mexico, but with the rise of the livestock industry, grass-eating animals that the wolves preyed on began to decline. In response, wolves, as well as other predators, began preying on livestock.

Seen as a nuisance, wolves became the target of government-sponsored elimination efforts, including hunting, trapping, poisoning and den destroying.

“When we conquered the West, we conquered the wolves,” Oakleaf said.

By the 1970s, humans succeeded in wiping out the wolf population in the Southwest and severely reducing the species' numbers in Mexico.

Recovery efforts began when the U.S. government listed the Mexican gray wolf as an endangered species in 1976, granting it protection and recovery funding under the Endangered Species Act.

Although its slowly making gains, the wolf population is still vulnerable, said Emily Renn, executive director of the Grand Canyon Wolf Recovery Project.

The recent wolf count is worth celebrating, but recovery efforts could still be improved, Renn said. Mexican wolves also had more deaths this past year, she pointed out.

Under the Endangered Species Act, it is illegal to kill a threatened or endangered species.

Last year a New Mexico rancher admitted he trapped a Mexican wolf and hit it with a shovel. The wolf later died and U.S. Forest Service moved to revoke his grazing permit.

A spokesperson for Fish and Wildlife Service said in a statement that the increase in deaths is likely because of “improved mortality detection,” the Republic reported in December 2018.

Can ranchers and wolves live in harmony?
Some, like Arizona range rider Todd Swinney, believe ranchers and wolves can coexist.

As a range rider, his job is to scare off and steer wolves away from grazing cattle herds. By using non-lethal techniques, he sees this strategy as a win-win: He can save both the cattle and the wolves.

On private land, a person is only allowed to kill an endangered Mexican wolf if the wolf is in the act of biting, wounding or killing their domestic animal. This situation has only occurred once since the inception of the Mexican wolf program because wolves generally attack animals in the dark, Oakleaf said.

That assessment doesn't include killings on public land.

In 2018 Fish and Wildlife Service charged two men from Peoria and Phoenix with a wolf shooting in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests the year prior.

A person is also allowed to wound or kill a wolf that’s attacking a human, but no Mexican wolf has taken a human life since the recovery program began, said Jim deVos, assistant director for wildlife management at Arizona Game and Fish Department.

And if someone perceives a threat to their livestock, there are ways to prevent an attack without harming the wolf, deVos said. One of those ways is to request a range rider like Swinney. Other methods involve making noise or using rubber bullets, he said.

People can also apply for a grant through the Livestock Loss Board for a “wide variety of tools,” deVos added.

“Killing wolves is an outdated mentality,” said Emily Renn of the Grand Canyon Wolf Recovery Project. “By knowing the wolf’s behavior, we can coexist peacefully.”

Rekindling the herd instinct in cattle is a possible solution, Renn suggested.

At a panel discussion at Sedona Wolf Week last month, wolf advocates discussed how cattle can protect themselves through herd instinct rather than scattering. By staying close together in a group, similarly to bison, cattle are less vulnerable to predators.

But what happens if a wolf does injure or kill a domestic animal?

The owner can apply for reimbursement through the Livestock Loss Board, deVos said. When an owner finds an injured animal, they can report it to the state Game and Fish Department. The agency will request an agent from USDA Wildlife Services to inspect the scene and determine if it is a probable or definite wolf attack.

The agent sends the report to Arizona Game and Fish, which will bring it up for review at the next Livestock Loss Board meeting. Compensation is based on current market value of the animal, deVos said.

Oakleaf said not all livestock deaths are discovered. Ranchers undoubtedly lose livestock to wolves that are never found or investigated, and they do not receive compensation, Oakleaf said.

Does captive wolf breeding work?
Since 2014, the Mexican wolf program has been experimenting with cross-fostering pups. Fostering involves breeding pups in captivity and then placing them in established dens. The goal is to increase genetic diversity in the wild population.

"We are always looking at what we do and make changes as data and experience dictates," deVos said in an email. "Doubling (the population) in 10 years is a clear win in my mind."

Of the 22 pups fostered since 2014, seven have survived and four of those have reached reproductive age, deVos said.

“It’s heartening that the population of these endangered wolves got a boost last year,” said Michael Robinson, senior conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, in a press release. “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.”

deVos disagrees about releasing adult wolves. The Mexican wolf program has so far seen low survival rates with captive adults released into the wild, he said.

Adults released into the wild were raised in captivity and think their food comes from people, he explained. They are then more likely to endanger themselves by approaching humans.

Of the nine adult wolves that have been released in the wild, only one contributed pups, he said. The other eight were removed for nuisance behavior by either illegal shooting or capture from wildlife officials.

"The other important factor to point out is that the foster program has support or at least tolerance from the local communities where wolves are," deVos wrote. In contrast, adult wolf releases face strong resistance from local communities, he wrote.

Renn, although she supports the captive-breeding program, criticizes state agencies for limiting the program only to pups. She described the decision as a political move to appease people who fear or oppose the introduction of wolves. Breeding and releasing adult wolves, such as breeding partners, into the wild could contribute new litters of pups because the adults are already at breeding age, Renn argued.

Pups have a more challenging time because they have to survive long enough to make it to breeding age, she said.

Wolf advocates, ranchers and wildlife officials tend to all agree that a wolf's proximity to livestock can be a danger to both the wolf and the livestock. They don't necessarily agree, however, on how humans and wolves can share the same landscape.

More collaboration and transparency between various interest groups are vital to the Mexican wolf's recovery, Renn said.

Questions or concerns about Arizona wildlife? Reach the reporter at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 602-444-8092. Follow her on Twitter: @PriscillaTotiya.

Environmental coverage on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. For more stories visit environment.azcentral.com or follow OurGrandAZ on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram