Mexican Wolf Numbers Reach New Heights
Mexican wolves were reintroduced for the first time in 1998, after they spent 30 years completely wiped from existence in the wild. 4 years later, in 2002, the first wild-born litter was born from a wild-born parent, kicking off an exciting new hope for the species, which has seen several other milestones of rebuilding in the years since. Now, 25 years after the first wolves were reintroduced, the species has finally exceeded 200 wild members, according to the latest counts from USFWS, growing from 196 in 2021, to 241 wild wolves documented in 2022, an impressive 23% increase.
Breaking Down The Numbers
A couple of weeks ago, Wolf Pass members got an exclusive inside look at the USFWS process for counting, health checking, and collaring wolves in Arizona and New Mexico when WCC staff member Rebecca Boseman was tapped by the USFWS to assist with their efforts. During the process, volunteers and staff checked in on the health status of several wolves and collared them before returning them to the wild.
After the process was complete, the USFWS released the data to the public earlier this week. Of the 241 documented wolves, 136 reside in New Mexico and 105 are in Arizona. The new total marks the seventh consecutive year of population growth and a more than doubling in size since 2017.
“The road to recovery for any endangered species is neither straight or easy, and this has proven to be the case for the Mexican wolf,” said Jim deVos, Arizona Game and Fish Department Mexican Wolf Coordinator. “With the stunning growth that occurred in 2022, recovery has accelerated at an amazing rate. By every possible measure, progress was made, including the production from 31 breeding pairs that produced 121 pups, of which 81 were documented to having survived to the time of the count, which is a very high survival rate of 67%. While the road to recovery still has ground to be covered, in 2022, the recovery program covered a lot of ground.”
In addition to the overall numbers of wild wolves, pup fostering efforts resulted in 11 pups from captivity being placed into five wild dens in the spring. The IFT has since documented survival of 2 of these pups. This brings the known number of fostered wolves documented alive to 14. The WCC has contributed several times to the cross-foster program, and we hope to have opportunities again this Spring if Trumpet and Lighthawk successfully conceive.
A Lack Of Diversity?
While most of the USFWS data suggested good news for the Mexican gray wolf population in AZ in NM, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention our thoughts on the program at large. As we detailed a few weeks ago, when Mexican gray wolf Asha made a daring trek north of the arbitrary I-40 border placed on these southwestern wolf populations, the range should be extended for Mexican wolves if they’re going to truly reach the level of geographic and genetic diversity necessary to reach a level of sustainability that everyone wants.
As WCC Executive Director Maggie Howell put it, ““Wildlife biologists have long recognized the importance of natural dispersal. Where one wolf roams, others follow. The continued effort to shoehorn Mexican gray wolves into the narrow stretch below Interstate 40 is unsustainable and thwarts their successful recovery.”
Mexican wolves once ranged across New Mexico, Arizona, west Texas, northern Mexico, and possibly as far north as southern Utah and Colorado. In fact, we recently advocated for Mexican wolves to be included in Colorado’s reintroduction efforts, and many geneticists think it could be helpful to have several packs over a wide range eventually intermingle in the American west. It makes sense, if one large group of wolves in one area were to get a contagious disease, it would likely run through the whole population. If a genetically diverse smattering of several groups of wolves is spread across a larger area, that’s much less likely.
Until then, while we are happy to see the numbers continue to rise in southern NM and AZ, there remains a razor thin margin between sustainability and extinction for wild Mexican wolves in the US.