Gray wolf numbers up, still below goal
The number of Mexican gray wolves in Arizona and New Mexico rose in 2011, but more significantly, the number of breeding pairs grew from just two to six.
In all, at least 58 wolves were counted by state and federal biologists in the annual survey,
conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Arizona Game and Fish Department. A year ago, there were 50 wolves counted and in 2010, there were just 42.
The numbers are especially encouraging because the Wallow Fire burned through several important wolf habitat areas last summer. Officials say the count is a minimum number because some wolves may have been missed in the survey.
“These numbers are an indication of the full-on effort we and our partners ... have been putting into this program," said Benjamin Tuggle, Southwest regional director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "We were successful in establishing the initial population of Mexican wolves in the wild, and we are building on that success."
Wolf advocates cheered the count cautiously, noting that the numbers are still far below the original goals of maintaining more than 100 wolves and 18 breeding pairs by 2006. The advocates say efforts to reintroduce the wolf to the wild has suffered from a lack of a full recovery plan and the small number of wolves released into the wild.
“Eight more wolves in the wild than the previous year is a step back from the edge of extinction,” said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity. “And that’s happy news. Of course, six breeding pairs is still perilously low."
The survey found 32 wolves in six packs on the Arizona side of the recovery area and 26 wolves in six packs on the New Mexico side. There were 18 pups born in 2011 that survived through Dec. 31, helping boost the final population figures.
“Even though these numbers are below the target levels specified in the environmental impact statement developed when the program began, these elements exhibit a cornerstone achievement
in Mexican wolf conservation,” said Larry Voyles, director of the Arizona Game and Fish Department. "This year’s count gives credence to the fact that we are moving in a positive direction.”
Voyles said wolf program specialists estimate that 90 percent of the wolves being tracked by electronic collars were born in the wild.
The gray wolf was all but extinct before the reintroduction program began in 1998. State and federal agencies have released wolves in fits and starts since then and the federal government has repeatedly delayed work on a full recovery plan.
The program has been the target of intense opposition by ranchers who run livestock in the high country of eastern Arizona and western New Mexico. They say the wolves kill cows and sheep and should not be allowed to roam wild.
Nine wolves are known to have died during the year, including two shot illegally.
Eva Sargent, a gray wolf expert for the group Defenders of Wildlife, said the wolves will never make it if the federal government doesn't release more animals into the wild.
“There are wolves eligible for release in Arizona and New Mexico right now, and they are desperately needed," she said. "Some of these wolves have been specially conditioned to avoid preying on cattle and deserve a chance at life in the wild.”
Voyles said the state will continue to work with land users in an effort to reduce the contact between wolves and livestock and avoid more confrontations.
“Building public tolerance by those who live on the land and must coexist with the wolf is crucial to the success of the Mexican wolf program in Arizona," he said.
Robinson said the wolves need the support of a full recovery program that acknowledges the value of the predator on the landscape.
“Restoring wolves to the wild helps restore the balance of nature in the Southwest,” he said. “More wolves means stronger and more alert elk and deer, more leftover meals for badgers and bears, and healthier streamsides as elk spend less time eating willow shoots.”
You can read more about how the state conducted the survey and how the information helps its program here.
Copyright © 2012 The Arizona Republic.
This article originally appeared here.
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