Feb. 14–Good news for the endangered Mexican gray wolf population: Its numbers grew for a fifth-straight year in 2014.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Friday said its annual census documented at least 109 Mexican wolves in the wild in New Mexico and Arizona last year.
That’s up from 83 wolves in the wild at the close of 2013 — a 31 percent increase.
The 100-animal mark for the wild population of Mexican wolves was “a hedge against extinction” — a number the early planners of the recovery effort set as a goal but could hardly have imagined, said Sherry Barrett, Mexican wolf recovery program coordinator.
“Biologically it’s not that meaningful,” she said. “We have a long way to go still.”
Fewer than a dozen Mexican wolves were known to have survived a government extermination program that began in 1915 and lasted decades.
The program brought the Mexican wolf to the brink of extinction, until federal policy shifted in the 1970s.
Seven surviving wolves were captured in Mexico and Arizona and were successfully bred in captivity. The reintroduction program began in 1998.
Today, the Mexican wolf range includes the Gila and Apache national forests and is slated to be expanded when a new management rule takes effect Feb. 17.
The recent census found a total of 19 Mexican wolf packs, with a minimum of 53 wolves in New Mexico and 56 wolves in Arizona.
Fourteen packs had at least one pup that survived through the end of the year, the FWS reported. At least 38 wild-born pups survived through the end of the year.
The new management rule expands the range where Mexican wolves can roam south to the U.S.-Mexico border and north to Interstate 40.
It also broadens the areas within that range where the FWS can introduce “new” wolves bred in captivity — giving the agency greater flexibility to improve the population’s poor genetic diversity, wolf advocates say.
However, the new rule also loosens the rules governing when wolves can be “taken,” including captured or killed, which could offset population growth in the coming year, wolf advocates say.
“What we’re facing is a new management rule which allows for new releases — we don’t know how many (FWS) will do — but it allows for killing and trapping wolves under circumstances that weren’t previously permitted,” said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s hard to know where it’s going to go from here.”
To achieve the population count, FWS biologists use radio telemetry to locate collared wolves, as well as rely on sightings.
Population results are collected on the ground during November and December and are coupled with an aerial survey by fixed-wing aircraft and helicopter in January and February.
The new rule sets a population goal of 300 to 325 wolves, which “would provide for the persistence of this population and enable it to contribute to the next phase of working toward full recovery,” the FWS said in the new management rule published in last month.
Wolf advocates point to a study prepared for the FWS that says at least 750 Mexican wolves, spread across three populations, are needed to ensure the long-term survival of the subspecies.