Feds count a record number of wild Mexican gray wolves, but advocates want to see more

The Arizona Republic (Original) Posted March 31, 2022 by Lindsey Botts

Federal officials said Wednesday they had recorded the highest number of Mexican gray wolves in the wild since recovery efforts for the endangered species began in 1998.

There were at least 196 individual wolves across the two-state protected habitat at the end of 2021, a population increase of 5%, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal manager of threatened and endangered species.

The record number included at least 112 wolves in New Mexico and 84 in Arizona. It also included cross-fostered pups, animals that were released from captivity and placed into wild packs to boost genetic diversity. Last year, the agency released 22.

While the count is lower than wildlife managers projected, this is the sixth year in a row that the population increased, continuing an upward trend that, by federal recovery standards, suggests recovery efforts are working.

“We are happy to see the wild population of Mexican wolves continue to grow year after year,” said Brady McGee, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Mexican wolf recovery coordinator, in a press release. “The service and our partners remain focused on recovery through improving the genetic health of the wild population and reducing threats, while also working to minimize conflicts with livestock.”

While many conservation groups applaud the bump in numbers, they say there's still room for improvement.

"I'm pretty satisfied that the population is continuing to increase despite a diversity of growing pressures against the program," said Craig Miller, the senior Southwest representative for Defenders of Wildlife.

How the wolves are counted
To reach the new total, the Wolf Interagency Field Team counted wolves between November 2021 and February 2022. They used on-the-ground methods, such as monitoring wildlife cameras and wolf howling, and observing tracks and scat. Using GPS collars, they were also able to drive to near known wolf locations and take surveys from the ground.

The collars also allowed teams to follow packs from the air. Once the location of a wolf was identified, biologists used helicopters to follow them to their dens, where the teams were able to count other members of the pack and dart individuals to assess their overall health.

While the process of counting wolves went well into the beginning of the new year, the number will be used as the official 2021 population. Wildlife managers count wolves annually between the fall and winter for several reasons, primarily because it's when the population is at its lowest, providing managers with a minimum count, a key number they use to assess recovery.

Winter weather also makes spotting animals easier, avoids the spring breeding season and reduces stress during the summer, when it's hot and adults are rearing young, said Aislinn Maestas, the public affairs specialist for USFWS.

According to the latest numbers, there are at least 45 packs across the Mexican Wolf Experimental Population Area, with 28 in New Mexico and 17 in Arizona. The area, which lies within the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests and the Gila National Forest and stops at Interstate 40, is where federal wildlife managers have agreed to manage and maintain Mexican wolf populations.

Is the recovery area enough?
Some wolf advocacy groups say the management area is insufficient for a complete and robust recovery. Since at least 2011, they have requested that recovery efforts go beyond I-40, but USFWS asserts that the boundary delineates the northern border of where Mexican wolves would have roamed.

According to the 2017 Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan, wildlife managers will consider downlisting the Mexican wolves from endangered to threatened once the population has reached at least 320 individuals in the U.S. over a four-year period.

Another pathway to downlisting would be if at least two populations, one in the U.S. and another in Mexico, reach at least 150 individuals over a two-year period.

In October, the agency revised a management rule, called the 10(j) rule, following a 2018 court decision. To bring the rule into compliance with the order, USFWS proposed removing the 320-wolf population cap, adding a genetic objective to address limited gene flow, and restricting several ways in which land managers and private landowners are allowed to kill wolves.

With the new count completed, the agency appeared to make progress on its stated genetic diversity target. USFWS would like to see at least nine of the captive-born pups released since 2016 survive to breeding age in 2022. The number increases gradually to 22 by 2030.

Of the 22 cross-fostered pups released into the wild, at least two have been collared. Combined with previous releases, there are now 14 cross-fostered puppies in the wild.

Miller, from Defenders of Wildlife, credits the consistent growth to the willingness of land users, such as ranchers, to partner with groups that support coexistence measures. That includes deterring wolves with electric fencing or range riders rather than killing them. He said he wishes the agency went a little further to ensure healthy populations are spread across the landscape.

"I think we need to continue the cross-fostering program because, for one, that can help diversify the genetics of packs that are already in the wild," said Miller. "It can be a very surgical tool to prevent a bigger problem down the road, but that shouldn't preclude the releases of well-bonded pairs with pups."

How numbers could grow more
Other conservation groups in Arizona that advocate for wolves say more could be done to enhance populations. They note that the population increased by only 10 individuals, even though 22 pups were released. The groups also point to the low survivability of pups.

"While 144 pups were born in 2021, only 56 survived into their first year," said Sandy Bahr, chapter director for Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter.

Underlining the fragility of the population, at least 25 wolves died last year, including a famed male wolf named Anubis, who was illegally killed near Williams. Poaching has been such a threat to recovery that, in a separate court ruling issued in October, a judge ordered the agency to include site-specific actions to address poaching.

Michael Robinson, the senior conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, said such actions could include not loaning telemetry devices to private citizens or putting up cameras in areas where poaching is likely.

The small boost in wolf numbers from 2020 to 2021 stands in contrast to the year prior when at least 20 individuals were added to the wild population. Still, the milestone is encouraging.

Achieving measurable objectives is a part of assessing the success of recovery efforts and looking at the population for a single year is a good way to gauge trends. Evaluating recovery is still a long-term process, Maestas said.

“The wild population of Mexican wolves will have years of fluctuation in growth, with some years being better than others," said Maestas. "Therefore, the Mexican Wolf Recovery Program looks at long-term trends in population, measuring progress toward our overall recovery goals."

Lindsey Botts is an environmental reporter for The Arizona Republic/azcentral. Follow his reporting on Twitter at @lkbotts and Lkbotts on Instagram. Tell him about stories at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..