Nation Nation Now

Mexican gray wolves form 2 new packs in American Southwest

As Tom Buckley tells it, the Mexican gray wolf recovery program in Arizona and New Mexico has suffered some rotten luck in recent years.

At last count, some 58 wolves remained in the wild in those two states, scattered across millions of forested acres in southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona. Predictably, some of the animals have been poached by local hunters and ranchers, but their numbers have been further reduced by some freakish events:

One choked on a cow’s ear tag, and another was struck by lightning, said Buckley, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

But this week brings some good news for the Mexican gray wolf, which is included on the list of federally protected species: Two new wolf packs have been formed, bringing the number of packs to 14 throughout the American Southwest.

“This is great news,” Buckley told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s an indication that the system is working, that these animals are dispersing, forming packs and having the opportunity to breed. They found each other and hooked up.”

The two packs so far consist of two wolves each, but federal wildlife managers hope the animals will soon begin breeding.

“They may be showing some denning behavior – they’re tending to hang out in the same location, rather than wandering,” Buckley told The Times. “If it produces pups in the wild, so much the better for the wolf population.”

Authorities have been trying to return the predators to their historic range in New Mexico and Arizona for more than a dozen years, but their efforts have been shackled by illegal shootings and courtroom battles involving the powerful rancher’s lobby, which rues the wolf’s return.

The Mexican gray wolf once roamed parts of New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and Mexico, but its numbers were decimated by hunting and poaching. The animal was added to the federal endangered species list in 1976, and a captive-breeding program was started.

The first batch of wolves was released into the wild in May 1998. Buckley told the Times that the agency monitors wolf numbers by helicopter flyovers checking on radio signals from tags. The most recent annual survey showed at least 18 pups among the packs at the beginning of the year.

But biologists have concerns about genetic diversity within the small population. Without new wolves, inbreeding can result in smaller litter sizes and greater pup mortality. Last year, the recovery team observed 38 pups in the wild. Fewer than half survived through the end of the year.

Critics of the federal recovery program say the government needs to release more captive wolves to bolster a population that has been kept in check by poaching, a lack of new releases and past instances of trappings and lethal removals triggered by run-ins with livestock.

“The program has had its ups and downs,” Buckley said, “but the two new packs show that there is hope.”

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john.glionna@latimes.com

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