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NM: One Step Forward, One Step Back for Southwest Mexican Gray Wolves

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Mexican gray wolves are slowly returning to historic territories in the Southwest, but they are still being killed at rates that worry biologists tracking their recovery.

The recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report says the Mexican gray wolf population showed 131 individual wolves and 32 packs of two or more animals in the wilderness of Arizona and New Mexico.

That 12% increase over the previous year makes biologist Bryan Bird – Southwest program director with Defenders of Wildlife – cautiously optimistic, but also concerned because 21 wolves died from various causes in 2018.

“We have to get a handle on the mortalities, the illegal killings, the vehicle collisions, and we need to get more wolves with genetically viable material out in the wild, because despite the great news that the population grew, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re genetics are healthy,” says Bird.

Following a six-month study, the National Academy of Sciences recently determined the Mexican gray wolf is a separate subspecies from other gray wolves, meaning they will retain their endangered status for the foreseeable future.

Reintroduction of the gray wolf to the Southwest ecosystem began in 1998, after they were nearly driven to extinction in the 1970s. Last year more than 80 pups were born, with a projected survival rate of 60 percent.

Bird would like to see the Southwest ecosystem benefit from the introduction of wolves, much like Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park has since gray wolves were introduced there in 1995. He says the predatory pressure from wolves in the park has increased beaver populations, created healthier herds of elk and improved vegetation.

“And I don’t think that we, meaning the Europeans when we were exterminating predators in the West, had any idea they were going to have such a profound effect on our ecosystem,” says Bird.

Science suggests that recovery of the Mexican gray wolf in the Southwest would require at least three connected populations totaling approximately 750 wolves, and at least two additional population centers in the Southern Rockies and the Grand Canyon regions.

Roz Brown, Public News Service – NM