Captive-born Mexican gray wolf pups released to 'foster dens' in Arizona and New Mexico

The Arizona Republic (Original) Posted June 24, 2019 by Andrew Nicla

Twelve Mexican gray wolf pups that were born in captivity have been released into the wild in Arizona and New Mexico, where officials hope the pups will grow up alongside other wolves as part of an effort to rescue the species from extinction.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Arizona Game and Fish Department placed the pups in "foster dens," where a female wolf had recently given birth. Scientists from the agencies and other groups participating in the Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Plan believe introducing the pups into a wild population could help increase the population's genetic diversity.

Five of the young wolves were placed into wild dens in Arizona and seven were placed in New Mexico between April 18 and May 10. The dens are in the Mexican Wolf Experimental Population Area, millions of acres of forest land shared between the two states.

Maggie Dwire, deputy Mexican wolf recovery coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said lots of planning and a bit of luck were required. The captive and wild wolves had to be born within days of each other in order for the release to work.

"This has proven successful to get new genetics into the wild," Dwire said, adding that one of the goals of the program is to boost the wild population and to hopefully make the wild packs less inbred.

The pups had to be delivered to the den as soon as Dwire and others got word of a wild birth. When a wild female wolf gives birth, the recovery team immediately reaches out to partnering zoos and conservation centers for a recent birth or pups between five and 15 days old.

If the team finds a match, the agencies work with the zoo to get the pups on the next plane to Arizona or New Mexico. For the most recent release, six of the captive-born pups were flown from the Endangered Wolf Center in Missouri, three from the Mesker Park Zoo in Indiana, two from Kansas' Sedwick County Zoo and one from New York's Wolf Conservation Center.

Although the Phoenix Zoo revealed the birth of six new pups earlier this month, Dwire said the "stars didn't align" because they weren't born within that narrow time frame of a wild birth.

A deliberate wolf reintroduction process
Dwire's crew and the others who work on the program keep a close watch on the positions of the wolves they track with radio collars. If one of the females stays in a spot longer than usual, they're likely prepping for birth.

When the captive-born wolves have arrived on-site, Dwire and her crew carry the one-pound pups, their eyes closed and their ears folded down and introduce them to a place with no fences. They're only surrounded by their new family.

To get the mother to accept the captive pupsas her own, the crews make the wolves defecate and urinate on each other so they smell and seem the same. There can't be more than eight pups in a den; it's an arbitrary number, but that's the largest number of offspring they've seen a mother care for.

Even if all of this goes right, there's no guarantee that the pups will live long, Dwire said. Cross-fostered pups seem to have the same survival rate as wild-born ones, about 50% in their early weeks of life. Only 30% likely make it to breeding age.

But Dwire said wildlife agencies need to keep doing the work; otherwise, the species could grow too inbred, which would make it harder to secure a stable population in the long term.

"The wild population, if you look at it from a genetic standpoint, it looks like it was only founded by two wolves," Dwire said.

"They’re as related to one another as brother and sister. (This program) is needed," she said. "If we’re going to spend a lot of time and money on wolves, genetics are a primary factor."

Given those odds of survival, people behind the program often have to work around the clock. Their work is part of the larger goal of bringing back a species that nearly went extinct. The wolves are now making slow but steady progress toward recovery.

Critic: Pup placement 'better than nothing'
The recovery efforts started after the government put the wolf on the endangered species list in 1976. That gave the wolves protections most animals do not get and recovery funding under the Endangered Species Act.

In April, in its annual survey of the New Mexico and Arizona population, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported 131 wolves in the wild, a 12% increase from last year and the highest wolf count since 1998. Sixty four were counted in Arizona, 67 in New Mexico.

Breeding and reintroduction of the wolves remain controversial. Environmentalists consider humans to be the most serious threat inhibiting the species' potential to thrive again. Ranchers near their habitat have reported wolves in their area and have killed them, claiming their lives are at risk and citing the fact they kill cattle and cross their land.

Michael Robinson, senior conservation advocate at the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, said the agencies are only addressing the "symptoms, not causes" behind the wolf's population decline. If the government released family groups instead of pups, which Robinson insists isn't being done for political reasons, they would reach their goal quicker while also cutting back on inbreeding.

"(This program) is not the ideal way to do it, but it’s better than nothing," Robinson said, adding that putting more wolves into the wild population, one way or another, is "vitally important."

"It’s not as effective as reaching family groups," he said. "It keeps the population within the time being in the geographic area where they are. They need to expand their distribution."

If the point of the program is to limit the amount of inbreeding, Robinson said, releasing families makes more sense because it would make it more likely for the parents to have more pups, which could eventually mate with the other packs. By just releasing the pups, there's a lag time for potential inbreeding and a lower likelihood of survival.

He also criticizes the recovery group's practice of feeding the wolves roadkill, which officials say helps deter the wolves from predating on livestock, allows farmers more time to move livestock if needed and encourages wolves to eat elk in that area.

But all that does, Robinson said, is condition the wolves to rely on that food source and keep them in certain areas, rather than encouraging them to roam where they naturally would.

Robinson believes the recovery goal is too low and isn't scientifically validated. Even if the goal is reached, Robinson said there will still be an inbred population, which could lead to a larger mortality rate.

Agencies see progress, challenges
Under the Fish and Wildlife Service recovery plan, wildlife managers won't remove the wolf from the endangered species list until an average of 200 wolves are counted in Mexico and 320 are confirmed in the U.S. for eight years.

Jim deVos, assistant director for wildlife management at the Game and Fish Department, said he's optimistic and personally believes the goal can be reached within 10 years. While the department is seeing an 10 percent bump in the population on average, projections by scientists are less optimistic and suggest reaching that threshold could take a couple of decades.

"I don’t think it will be that long," deVos said.

"We’ve got right now some really important things going on," he said. "We have the highest number of adult wolves ever, the largest number of packs established and we’re seeing reasonably large litters."

The reason the agencies release younger wolves instead of adult wolves is because the wild mother will teach the pups to be skeptical of and avoid human contact, while adults raised in captivity might be more likely to approach people.

But that still doesn't stop the animals from wandering near people or even onto private property, where they might kill livestock. Crews do their best with the resources they have to keep the wolves away from areas where they may be killed by people.

To do that, deVos said, crews keep close watchon tagged wolves using radio collars, range riders monitor livestock at times and, in the most extreme cases, field crews can shoot rubber bullets at stray wolves or fire shellcrackers into the air.

The department and partnering groups would prefer to accept the slow and steady progress rather than risk captive-bred adult wolves causing problems and ruining spotty, but overall good relationships with ranchers and landowners they work with.

deVos' five-person crew talks with ranchers every day. While most understand and respect the work those in the recovery program do, their view on the program is a "mixed bag," and deVos understands their skepticism.

Some days, scientists have to talk with farmers who just lost a calf. The government will pay them based on market price of meat, but for the ranchers, it's more than lost money; it's lost time. It's more than a job to them; it's a vocation, a livelihood and a family tradition.

'Recovery is achievable'
While deVos said the ranchers work with the agencies and his crews do their best to keep wolves away from private property, the state can only do so much. If wolves slip through the cracks and reasonably threaten ranchers or their livestock, the ranchers can kill the animals if there's no other option. They are still encouraged to report a sighting if they can.

Rules and policies are evolving as a result of a series of lawsuits, some of which the Center for Biological Diversity is involved in. Until those details are hashed out, the lives of the gray wolves remain in a legal gray area.

Although deVos doesn't know what will come of the legal battles, he remains optimistic for the future of the species as long as he and his crew continue to do their jobs right. But there are some things they can't ever control, like nature, which can change in an instant.

"Trying to predict nature is somewhat like trying to predict the lottery," deVos said.

"Many things can change, but at least right now I think we have very strong indications that recovery is achievable."

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