The annual Mexican gray wolf population count revealed the steady increase in numbers continues,
but what does it mean for wolves looking for mates?
The United States Fish & Wildlife Service released the results of its annual wild Mexican gray wolf population count today, revealing that the number of wolves has increased to a minimum of 163 wolves. This increase of 24% from last year comes despite the critical decline in genetic health of the wild population. The young, newly collared wolves will disperse in search of mates to form new packs, but are less likely to bear a more genetically diverse generation without the release of more wolves from breeding facilities.
Wolf advocates continue to celebrate the efforts of breeding facilities around the United States who have worked with the USFWS to introduce young pups into active, wild dens, a difficult process called cross-fostering. This year’s efforts were more successful than in the past, in part due to USFWS placing the maximum number of pups into dens that the state agencies will allow. Nevertheless, the deliberate choice to avoid releasing well-bonded pairs of wolves with pups since 2006 has led to a reality where cross-fostering alone is likely too little, too late.
"While we are pleased that the number of Mexican wolves is increasing, we remain concerned about the genetic diversity of the wild population and continue to urge the US Fish and Wildlife Service to release well-bonded wolf packs into our southwestern public lands to maximize the genetic diversity in the wild," said Sandy Bahr, director of Sierra Club's Grand Canyon (Arizona) Chapter.
For years, scientists have recommended to the USFWS that there be three subpopulations of at least 200 wolves each (and 750 total), spread throughout the Southwest United States. Scientists warn that this metapopulation structure and geographic distribution is essential to the success of Mexican wolves.
Although the expert captive breeding facilities have been highly successful in preserving genetic diversity and reducing inbreeding within the captive population, defects in the USFWS recovery plan and management policies have resulted in genetic deterioration in the wild population. The recovery plan should have resulted by now in the wolves becoming less dependent on the breeding facilities for survival rather than more so.
Emily Renn with the Grand Canyon Wolf Recovery Project said "The growing population of Mexican gray wolves in the wild needs access to additional suitable habitat where packs can spread out and provide ecological benefits as a keystone species. With court-ordered revisions for the wolves' management plan on the horizon, now is the perfect opportunity to increase the area where wolves can be released and establish territories north of Interstate-40 and in the Grand Canyon region."
“Mexican gray wolves continue to do everything they can to show us that their recovery is possible”, said Kelly Burke, executive director of Wild Arizona, “but only if we act on scientifically supported strategies and proactively release lobo families into the wild. We can still save these globally unique lobos from extinction if we do.”
Wolf advocates have requested that the USFWS include reporting on the genetic health of the Mexican gray wolf as they release information about the population. This year, the Interagency Field Team had a high number of wolves removed from the wild; the genetic value of each individual wolf to the whole population is never reported to the public.
Background on Mexican Gray Wolves:
The lobo, or Mexican gray wolf, is the smallest, most genetically distinct, and one of the rarest subspecies of gray wolf. The subspecies was listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1976, but recovery efforts have suffered without implementation of recommended recovery actions by responsible wildlife advocates.
Although lobos once widely roamed across the southwestern United States and Mexico, the Mexican wolf was purposefully eradicated from the U.S. on behalf of American livestock interest. In 1998, after the few remaining wolves were brought into captivity to save the species, the Service released 11 Mexican wolves to a small area on the border of Arizona and New Mexico now known as the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area.
Mexican wolves are at tremendous risk due to their small population size, limited gene pool, threats from trapping, and illegal killings. Wolves breed only once a year. The count occurs in January and February to capture the population at its most stable point.
More at www.mexicanwolves.org.