Today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service revealed that 131 Mexican gray wolves survive in the wilds of southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona. The annual count shows a small increase of 14 individuals from last year’s total documented count of 117. The Mexican Wolf Interagency Field Team deployed in February and found at least 64 wolves in Arizona and 67 wolves in New Mexico. The population is divided into 32 known packs along with a number of solo wolves. The relatively slow growth of the population is not surprising, given extraordinarily high Mexican wolf mortalities in 2018 and political sideboards too narrowly constraining the recovery strategy for the endangered species.
“Until the illegal killings are stopped and the gene pool is supplemented by the release of bonded adult pairs with pups, we can expect the same slow growth,” said Christopher Smith, southern Rockies wildlife advocate for WildEarth Guardians. “My hope is that the state of New Mexico exemplifies new leadership in aiding the recovery of our iconic lobo—a proactive role by the Department of Game and Fish and the banning of traps in the Mexican wolf recovery area are good ways to start.”
A deeply flawed “recovery” plan released by the Trump administration in November 2017 and the looming threat of an anti-wildlife border wall increase the risk of extinction for the genetically fragile wild population.
“Trump’s border wall poses a huge threat to the Mexican gray wolf. Our population of Mexican wolves in the U.S. simply does not have enough genetic diversity to be healthy over time,” said Amanda Munro, field organizer for Southwest Environmental Center. “Genetic exchange with populations in Mexico is key to the long-term survival of our wolves. No matter if it’s made of concrete or steel, or if it’s called a wall or a fence, a border wall would make that genetic exchange impossible. It would separate the Mexico and U.S. populations forever, and increase the risk of our lobo going locally extinct.”
Mexican gray wolves continue to suffer from illegal killings that have resulted in very few limited enforcement actions. There were 21 documented wolf mortalities in 2018, the highest number since the recovery program began in 1998. Many mortalities remain unexplained, but human-caused mortalities persist as the biggest threat to recovery. In New Mexico, at least 5 lobos have been caught in traps since November 2018. One endangered wolf died and another lost a leg. The New Mexico legislature failed to pass House Bill 366, which would have banned trapping on public land in the state.
The current recovery plan relies solely on cross-fostering wolf pups into wild dens. Evidence suggests that this strategy alone is insufficient to effectively increase genetic diversity. Due to political pressure, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does not plan to release any adult wolves into the wild. The best available science suggests that releasing well-bonded adult pairs with pups is the most effective way to increase genetic diversity and speed recovery efforts.
“We desperately need to release more Mexican wolves from the captive population into the wild to both increase numbers on the ground and allow essential genes to contribute to the wild population,” said Kelly Nokes, Shared Earth Wildlife Attorney for the Western Environmental Law Center. “This critically imperiled species is relying on us to bring them back from the brink of extinction.”
The lobo, or Mexican wolf, is the smallest, most genetically distinct, and one of the rarest subspecies of gray wolf. The species was listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1978, but recovery efforts have largely foundered because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has yet to implement scientifically recommended recovery actions.
Although lobos once widely roamed across the southwestern U.S. and Mexico, the Mexican wolf was purposefully eradicated from the U.S on behalf of American livestock, hunting, and trapping interests. Recognizing the Mexican gray wolf’s extreme risk of extinction, the Service listed it on the federal endangered species list in 1976.
In 1998, after the few remaining wolves were put into captivity in an attempt 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. The program has limped along ever since, with illegal killings and sanctioned removals subverting recovery.
Mexican wolves are at tremendous risk due to their small population size, limited gene pool, threats from trapping, Wildlife Services’ activities, and illegal killings.