Foster parent’s success adds a rare bright spot
By Pete Aleshire
The controversial, long-suffering attempt to return the Mexican Grey Wolf to the wild continues to rack up victories — and setbacks.
The number of wolves in the wild continues to hover at around 100, with a slowdown in releases coupled with a surge in illegal killings of the endangered predators.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering a plan to bolster the 15-year recovery effort by dramatically increasing the area into which it will release wolves, now limited to a wild area straddling the Arizona-New Mexico border near Alpine. The expanded area would allow the Forest Service to introduce wolves to wilderness areas on the doorstep of Rim Country.
The program in 2016 suffered a fresh setback when 14 wolves were killed – mostly shot illegally. That sets an unfortunate record for a program that has struggled to establish a sustainable wolf population.
Two of the 14 wolves that died in 2016 perished in the process of being trapped by Game and Fish officials, which usually means biologists were trying to remove or relocate wolves that had created problems – often by killing or harassing cattle.
All told, the 100 reintroduced wolves last year killed about two dozen cattle.
Ranchers can apply for payment for the killing or harassment of their cattle, which generally graze on public lands. However, some ranchers have complained the reimbursement program doesn’t cover their losses and often rejects or delays payments.
Both Arizona and New Mexico state officials have objected to the proposed expansion of the range for the Mexican Grey Wolves. The current rules of the program require the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to recapture wolves that range too far from the core reintroduction area. That has proven costly for the program and hard on the wolves.
Several state lawmakers – including Rep. Bob Thorpe and Rep. Brenda Barton – who represent Rim Country – have introduced bills that attempt to assert state control of the wolf reintroduction effort.
Environmental groups have supported the expansion. They’ve also called on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to resume releases from the captive breeding program. Biologists much prefer to grow the population with wild-born wolves, which have a higher survival rate since they’ve learned to live in the wild more effectively.
The program relied on the last five Mexican Grey wolves captured in the wild years ago. The federal government established captive breeding programs with the offspring of those wolves.
On the other hand, biologists with the Mexican Wolf Interagency Field Team (IFT) recently learned a fostered wolf pup introduced to a pack in 2014 has produced a wild offspring of her own – a boost to the genetic diversity of the reintroduced wolves. This means that a pup born in the captive breeding program and slipped into the den of wolves in the wild not only survived – but joined the breeding population.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently reported that a genetic test of male 1561 revealed that it is the offspring of male 1293 and female 1346. The female was one of two pups fostered into the den of the Dark Canyon Pack in New Mexico in 2014.
“We now have proof that a fostered pup not only survived to adulthood, but that it is reproducing and contributing genetically important young into the wild,” said Jim deVos, assistant director of wildlife management for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. “This is fantastic news for the program and demonstrates that fostering Mexican wolves so they grow up wild is effective and provides a critical step forward for wolf recovery.”
The fostering technique places very young pups born in captivity into a wild-born litter of the same age. The pups are then raised in the wild rather than captivity.
Critics of the commission’s decision to restrict releases in Arizona solely to fostering pups argued that until these pups reproduce there would be no genetic rescue.
“One of the key challenges to recovery of the Mexican wolf is long-term genetic management given that all Mexican wolves alive today originated from a founder population of only seven animals,” deVos said. “This approach has been used in genetic management of other species but until this month was unproven for Mexican wolves,” said deVos.
The Mexican Wolf Reintroduction Project is a collaborative effort of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Arizona Game and Fish Department, White Mountain Apache Tribe, USDA Forest Service, USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service – Wildlife Services, and several participating counties in Arizona.