ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Federal officials said Friday there are more Mexican gray wolves in the wild in the Southwest than there have been in each of the past five years, giving a glimmer of hope to a program that has been struggling to return the endangered animals to their historic range.
The annual survey results were released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service after months of tracking the animals on the ground and from the air during helicopter and plane surveys done last month.
With 58 wolves in Arizona and New Mexico, the increase over last year’s 50 is welcome news for biologists and conservationists who were concerned about the effects that nine wolf deaths over the past year would have on the program.
Fish and Wildlife Service Regional Director Benjamin Tuggle said the increase is evidence of the work that has gone into the program over the last year.
“We were successful in establishing the initial population of Mexican wolves in the wild, and we are building on that success,” he said. “Our team is addressing the two biggest threats to Mexican wolf recovery, limited genetic diversity and illegal mortality, and I am certain that we will overcome them.”
Biologists have confirmed there are 26 wolves in New Mexico and 32 in Arizona.
Among the 12 packs in the two states, there are six breeding pairs. There haven’t been that many breeding pairs in the wild since 2004.
The surveys also determined that of at least 38 wolf pups born at least 18 survived till the end of the year. The births helped offset the eight wolves that were found dead over the past year and one wolf that program officials killed in December after it visited a ranch house and resisted leaving the property.
The Mexican gray wolf, a subspecies of the gray wolf, once roamed New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and Mexico. As more people began to settle in the Southwest, conflict arose between the wolves and people and livestock. Hunting and government-sponsored extermination campaigns all but wiped out the predator.
The wolf was added to the federal endangered species list in 1976 and a captive-breeding program was started. The first batch of 11 wolves was released in May 1998.