PHOENIX — Endangered Mexican gray wolves rebounded from a deadly 2015 to reach a population of 113 in eastern Arizona and western New Mexico last year, the most since the species returned to the wild almost 20 years ago, federal and state biologists announced Friday.
The population of wolves, first reintroduced from captive breeding into the two states in 1998, had grown by fits and starts to 110 two years ago before dropping back to 97 at the end of 2015. Unsolved illegal shootings contributed to the losses, and officials said that year also saw lower pup survival.
Last year was different, according to winter ground and aerial surveys conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its partner wildlife agencies in the two states. Fifty wild-born pups survived the year, compared with just 23 in 2015.
At least 63 wolves roamed the forests of eastern Arizona as of January, the agencies reported.
“We are encouraged by these numbers, but these 2016 results demonstrate we are still not out of the woods with this experimental population,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Regional Director Benjamin Tuggle said in a news release.
The year’s positive numbers didn’t sway wolf advocates, who say the population needs a major infusion of new blood with new releases of captive wolves.
Arizona has favored placing captive-born pups with wild packs in the state lately, instead of releasing pairs to form new packs. The tactic remains risky, Robinson said, as the annual census shows only three of six wolves fostered in this manner apparently survived last year.
New Mexico, meanwhile, has secured a court injunction barring new releases into that state for the time being.
Both states face pressure from ranchers and deer and elk hunters to limit potential wolf predations.
“New Mexico is paving a path that could lead to Mexican gray wolf extinction,” said Bryan Bird, Southwest program director for Defenders of Wildlife. “Releases are crucial to increase lobo numbers and improve their genetic diversity in the wild.
“We need more wolves and less politics.”
Arizona expects the survival of wild-born pups to help sustain last year’s growth rate, said Jim deVos, assistant director of wildlife management for the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
The Mexican wolf is the rarest of gray wolf subspecies and is somewhat smaller than its northern cousins. It was hunted into near extinction with U.S. government help in the past century before a captive breeding program began with the last seven survivors in the 1970s.
Mexico also has re-established a small population.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has long struggled to produce a recovery plan that would lay out a population goal and the means to get there, but it is due to release one this fall.