ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Federal officials said Friday there are more Mexican gray wolves in the wild than there have been in each of the past five years, giving a glimmer of hope to a program that has struggled to return the endangered animals to the Southwest.
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 at least 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 future of the small population scattered across millions of forested acres in the two states.
Fish and Wildlife Service Regional Director Benjamin Tuggle said the increase is evidence of incremental progress made by 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.”
The latest census marks the first time in nearly a decade that wolf numbers have increased over two consecutive years. Tuggle called it a positive trend.
“I think we want to celebrate the victories that we have, but that doesn’t guarantee that we should rest on our laurels,” he said. “In any given set of circumstances it can take a different trend for us, so I want to be vigilant.”
For environmentalists who have been frustrated with the pace of the reintroduction, the census prompted them to push harder for what they said is the key to bolstering the wild population — more releases of captive wolves.
“Wolves are smart, adaptable animals, but they can’t make it alone,” said Eva Sargent, the Southwest program director for Defenders of Wildlife.
In the past five years, there have been more than a dozen transfers of wolves around the reintroduction area. But only once during that time — in 2008 — have managers released a new wolf.
Without new wolves, Tuggle and the environmentalists agreed the population’s genetics could be compromised. Inbreeding can result in smaller litter sizes and greater pup mortality.
Tuggle said the program plans to release more wolves within the next year and a half, but he declined to say how many or provide any details about the agency’s preliminary plans. Last year, he made the same statement, but no wolves were released.
Last year also saw New Mexico pull out of the program, and Arizona adopted a policy in which game officials there would consider releases only on a case-by-case basis.
The partnerships are important, but the agency has a responsibility to do “what’s fundamentally the right thing” for the wolves, Tuggle said.
“We think this is the year where we will do everything possible to try to make sure we iron out all the kinks that are in that fabric and be successful with releases,” he said.
The latest surveys show there are at least 26 wolves in New Mexico and 32 in Arizona.
Among the 12 packs documented in the two states, there are six breeding pairs. There haven’t been that many breeding pairs in the wild since 2006.
The surveys also determined there were at least 18 pups among the packs. The births helped offset the eight wolves that were found dead over the past year and the one wolf that program officials were forced to kill in December due to safety concerns.
Still, biologists are concerned about high pup mortality and the long-term effects that could have on wild-born pups being able to supplement the population.
Earlier in 2011, the recovery team had observed 38 pups. Less than half survived through the end of the year.
The Mexican gray wolf, a subspecies of the gray wolf, once roamed New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and Mexico. Hunting and government-sponsored extermination campaigns all but wiped out the predator.
It was added to the federal endangered species list in 1976, and a captive-breeding program was started. The first batch of wolves was released in May 1998.