Written by Geoffrey Plant
The endangered Mexican gray wolf population in New Mexico and Arizona increased by at least 24 percent from 2018 to 2019, according to an annual report compiled by the Mexican Wolf Interagency Field Team, a group of biologists, wildlife specialists and representatives from a variety of state and federal agencies that manages the wolf’s reintroduction to the wild.
The team estimates that there are now at least 163 individual Mexican gray wolves — with a minimum of 42 packs — living across the Gila National Forest and the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest.
“Last year, the [Interagency Field Team] documented 131 wolves at the end of 2018, which was a 12 percent increase from 2017,” the Arizona Game and Fish Department said in a press release last month. “This population has increased an average of 15 percent annually in the last 10 years.”
The reintroduction program began in 1998, when 11 wolves were released in the “Mexican Wolf Experimental Population Area” spanning parts of the Coconino, Sitgreaves and Apache national forests in Arizona, most of the Gila National Forest and part of the Cibola National Forest in New Mexico, as well as portions of El Malpais National Monument and the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge. The current population of wild Mexican gray wolves is originally descended from four males and one pregnant female captured in Mexico, whose descendants were subsequently bred with a couple of other “lineages.” The entire known Mexican gray wolf population is essentially descended from seven wolves.
The Arizona Game and Fish Department, which releases monthly updates on the wolves’ progress in the wild, said in the release that the Interagency Field Team found the 163 wolves distributed almost evenly between the two neighboring states, “with 76 in Arizona and 87 in New Mexico.”
“The count shows we have more wolves, more breeding pairs and more pups born in the wild than ever before,” Amy Lueders, regional director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Albuquerque, is quoted as saying in the release. “This is the second year we have seen a significant increase in the wild population of Mexican wolves, a success that is directly tied to the science-based, on-the-ground management efforts of the Interagency Field Team.”
One of those management efforts, called “cross-fostering,” is still relatively new, and may be one of the reasons behind the wolves’ success in recent years.
“In 2019, the Interagency Field Team placed 12 captive-born pups into five wild dens — a process called ‘cross-fostering’ — to try and boost the genetic variability of the wild wolf population. The Interagency Field Team has since captured and collared two of these pups, and will continue efforts in 2020 to document others that may have survived,” the Arizona Game and Fish Department release said. “Since the first cross-fostering of Mexican wolf pups in 2014, the Interagency Field Team has documented a minimum of nine cross-fostered pups recruited into the population and currently alive. Four cross-fostered wolves have survived to breeding age, resulting in multiple litters of genetically diverse pups born in the wild.”
Michael Robinson, of the Center for Biological Diversity, told the Daily Press that the cross-fostering program probably doesn’t explain the wolves’ reproductive success.
“What the report doesn’t say is that they only found two of the 12 pups that were introduced,” he said. “Very few of these pups are surviving.
“Cross-fostering is helpful in some situations, but overall it is an inadequate replacement for full-family pack releases,” Robinson continued. “That’s how this program was successfully started, and from 1998 to 2006, well-bonded male-female units with pups, and sometimes yearlings, were released. That’s up to eight wolves.”
According to the Interagency Field Team, a minimum of 90 pups were born last year, and the average survival rate for Mexican gray wolf pups in the wild is about 50 percent. There were 14 documented mortalities among the adult population last year, down from 21 mortalities in 2018 — a 33 percent decrease.
While wolf mortalities are down — unaccounted-for “wolf disappearances” notwithstanding, Robinson noted — instances of conflicts between wolves and ranchers have increased in New Mexico, according to both environmentalists and ranchers.
There were 126 confirmed instances of wolves killing livestock in New Mexico last year, with 10 “probable” instances of wolf depredations, according to the Interagency Field Team; 58 confirmed depredations and one suspected kill were reported in Arizona.
Approximately 63 percent of all known wild Mexican gray wolves are collared, and transponder data shows that in New Mexico, individual wolves and wolf packs are concentrated in Catron County, where ranchers continue to lose a not-insignificant number of cattle to wolf depredations each month.
The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish was unable to provide numbers for total reported cattle depredation incidents in Catron County, saying the “data resides with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service”; the Fish and Wildlife Service did not respond to the Daily Press’ request by press time.
“It seems like there won’t be a high number of depredations for a couple years, and then it spikes — there’s definitely been a spike in the last year,” said Carolyn Nelson, who runs a cattle operation in Catron County with her husband, Joe. Like most ranchers, Nelson sees the reintroduction program as working at cross-purposes with the grazing permits they get from the U.S. Forest Service — which is part of the Interagency Field Team — and the rent they pay to lease their grazing allotment.
“For anyone else, it would be like someone came along and took a third of your paycheck,” Nelson said. “That’s what it’s like having wolves on your allotment. You get a bank loan to pay for the right to use the allotment, and then wolves are eating your crop!”
Ranchers can apply for compensation from government and non-government sources for both cattle losses and non-lethal impacts wolves may have on other aspects of a ranching operation, but Nelson described the compensation program for livestock that ranchers lose to wolves as “time-consuming, and you get a fraction of what the animals are worth.”
“If you find one kill, you know there’s up to 10 more you didn’t find,” she said. “Ranchers also lose horses and other types of livestock to wolves.”
Robinson said it’s the policies of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that are to blame for the increased depredations.
“This demonstrates the Fish and Wildlife Service not following scientists’ recommendations on how to prevent depredations and conflicts between ranchers and wolves,” he said. “Ranchers need to be instructed to remove carcasses of cows, horses and sheep that draw wolves into the proximity of other livestock — this happens over and over in certain areas.”
Nelson said the behavior of the wolves living in Catron County has changed through the decades.
“Twenty years ago, the wolves would come in, and [when they killed a cow] you’d find just a little bone left — they would eat everything,” she said. “Now, they are coming in and playing. They chase cattle or horses down and tear out their hamstrings, take a couple bites from the animal while it’s still alive and move on to the next one.
“Why has rooster fighting been outlawed, dogfighting outlawed, and then you take a wolf and release it and turn it into a cruel killer” of livestock? Nelson asked. “The wolves are a man-made problem. You can get the bumper sticker with the coyote howling on it, and think it’s magical … but in reality, it’s a cruel part of nature. The big picture is that you depend on your calf crop to make your payments. Depredations threaten to put ranchers out of business.”