When the wild Mexican wolf population reached 110 in 2014, it was the first time in a nearly 20-year recovery that the wolf population exceeded 100. This year's annual count found just 97 Mexican wolves in the wild, a dip that officials called a demonstration of the need for ongoing work to recover this endangered species.
"Recovery of endangered species is never easy, nor is the road to success a straight line," Jim deVos, assistant director of wildlife management for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, said in a press release from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, announcing the results of their annual survey. "The lower number of Mexican wolves that were counted is a concern, but not a signal that the program is unsuccessful. It is important to look at a number of population demographic factors, such as the number of pups born this year, which is only two less than last year. Of the 21 wolf packs on the ground today, 10 successfully reared a litter through the end of this year. Wildlife populations vary on an annual basis, so the decline in the number of Mexican wolves counted this year is not out of character."
He points to the fact that in 1998, there were zero wild Mexican wolves, and so the long-term trend is upward.
But wildlife advocates see last year's population drop in a different light, saying it's a mark of the need for major reforms in a program that has limped toward success since the first Mexican wolves were reintroduced to the wild in 1998.
"They know that they're driving the Mexican wolf to extinction, and they're trying to pretend otherwise. The Fish and Wildlife Service for years has been ignoring the urgent pleas of scientists to change course," says Michael Robinson, conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. "They know the obvious response when you see a drastic drop like this is, how come you didn't follow the advice of scientists? Are you screwing things up? Are things going wrong? These are bureaucrats who are betraying the public interest, trying to cover their asses."
The public information officer for the Fish and Wildlife Service tells SFR it doesn't respond to allegations from the Center for Biological Diversity and also on Friday declined to talk about the notion they don't take the lack of genetic diversity in the population seriously.
In a September interview, Maggie Dwire, assistant Mexican wolf recovery coordinator, described the few options in a small gene pool limiting the ability of survival of the fittest to function in the population: "Every animal has fixed traits, and nobody can adapt to a new or changing environment," she said.
"The problem with the wild population currently is that all the wolves are pretty related to one another, and when inbreeding accumulates, it can lead to reduced fitness, which is an animal's ability to survive and reproduce," Dwire said. "So I guess on the most basic level, if left unattended, the chances for this population to lose its ability to do those things, survive and reproduce, adapt to a changing environment, all of that would go down."
Right now, every animal in the wild population is related to one another as siblings, meaning even when wolves disperse to find a mate from another pack, that mate is about as similar genetically as brother and sister are.
"That's why we have the need for increased releases of wolves, so that we can sort of dilute the relatedness of the population, so that when animals disperse, they have a chance of meeting an animal that's not related to them, so then gene diversity can increase, and inbreeding can go down," Dwire said. She's watched the program change, she says, from her early days with it shortly after she started in 2000, when there were a lot of captive-bred wolves being released, to a waning trend for those releases, increasing the gap in relatedness between the captive population and wild population.
Asked if there are planned releases this year, Bradley said, "I think there are, but they haven't been finalized, so I don't want to give a positive or a negative."
The latest census counts 21 total packs, with 47 wolves in New Mexico and 50 in Arizona. Ten of those packs had at least one pup, with a total of 23 wild-born pups that survived to the end of the year—55 percent, compared to 86 percent in 2014. Part of the problem with this latest round of losses is that nine of 13 wolves lost were breeding females, and that's something the Fish and Wildlife Service will have to address as they move forward, says Sherry Barrett, the service's Mexican wolf recovery coordinator. They're working now on the release strategy for 2016, Barrett says, and should have that available for the public in April.
It's a question of basic math, says Dave Parsons, who oversaw the USFWS recovery program when the first Mexican wolves were reintroduced into the wild and has since left the agency: Reproduction has to surpass mortality for the population to increase, and this year saw "excessive mortality," including the loss of nearly half of pups born.
In addition to 13 wolves known to have been killed in 2015, 11 are "fate unknown," their radio collars having stopped transmitting, for reasons that could vary from a dead battery to sabotage, or perhaps they exited the search area, though that's unlikely, given the low population density. Missing wolves have turned up alive in later years, but it's rare, and without a carcass, their fate remains unknown.
"The Fish and Wildlife Service predicted just a year ago that the population was going to enjoy a 10 percent annual increase for the foreseeable future, and what we've seen is an over 10 percent decline in one year, so that's obviously distressing for those of us that care about the Mexican wolves, and it shows that there are things the Fish and Wildlife Service was not taking into account in its estimate, and we're worried about it," Robinson says.
In the same document that predicted a population increase, a new rule that went into effect in January 2015, the Fish and Wildlife Service also loosened restrictions on private individuals removing wolves or harming them. Livestock owners, domestic animal owners and their agents can now obtain permits to kill a wolf in the act of attacking livestock on federal land; they also allow for killing wolves in response to "unacceptable impacts" to deer and elk. None of the new provisions were used this year, according to Barrett.
"We cannot be certain if this abrupt decline is an anomaly, as our trends since 2010 had been more encouraging prior to this year, including a 30 percent growth in 2014," Barrett said in a press release. "Although there are many dynamics that may have contributed to this year's count results, we will carefully analyze the contributing factors to try to actively reverse this decline."
Robinson points to two contributing factors as likely causes for the decline: illegal shooting and limited genetic diversity, which could be contributing to fewer pups being born and fewer of them maturing to adulthood.
Even with 110 wolves in the wild, advocates and scientists saw the situation as a "genetic crisis" that put future recovery of this rarest wolf sub-species at risk, and the Fish and Wildlife Service, he says, is failing to take that risk seriously.
"They haven't actually released any wolves from the captive breeding facilities into the wild, and that's the only way to address the inbreeding," Robinson says. "Unless and until new wolves are put into the population, the loss of genetic diversity is a one-way ratchet. Each generation, you're going to have less and less genetic diversity represented, and there's no way to go back."
And that problem was identified in 2007, he says, adding that there's been little done to remediate it.
The Fish and Wildlife Service spent much of 2015 embroiled in an appeals process with the New Mexico Game Commission, after the state denied an application to release more captive-bred wolves into the wild, including up to 10 pups to be cross-fostered and introduced into similarly aged litters for wild-born wolves, and two adults with pups. That fight culminated in the service's October declaration that while the Endangered Species Act advises collaboration with state governments, it doesn't require it if the future of a species is at risk, and so the service could essentially ignore the state's failure to cooperate and release wolves here anyway. Arizona's wildlife managers have similarly declared that they won't allow adult wolf releases, only pups, which would then need to be cross-fostered.
"That's been tried twice and was successful once," Parsons says. "The problem with that is that it's very tricky to pull off."
Not only do cross-fostered litters need to be born in captivity and in the wild within a week of one another, but the wild den needs to be found and pups put in, though not so many that the litter becomes too large. Last year, the Fish and Wildlife Service transported pups from Missouri to the recovery area, which straddles Arizona and New Mexico, but arrived only to find the wild female had moved her den and couldn't be located. The pups were rushed back to Missouri, and any attempt to put those wolves into the wild will have to wait until they're adults.
"Cross-fostering alone is not the answer, it's a tool that's helpful, but you need to be putting adult pairs out there that are capable of producing immediately, and they're just not doing that yet," Parsons says.
All the service seems to do is put out is press releases about their upcoming wolf releases, Robinson says, releasing few actual wolves.
"The Fish and Wildlife Service has only released four Mexican gray wolves from the captive breeding program into the wild in the entire Obama administration, and three of those are dead, and one of them is back behind wire mesh, for a net gain of zero," Robinson says.
The Center for Biological Diversity, among other wildlife advocacy groups, sent a letter to the secretary of the interior and the director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, calling for the release of five family packs into the Gila in the next several months.
"It's actually not a very viable option," Barrett says. "That's a lot of packs to be putting into the Gila Wilderness. What we would always want to do is make sure we're not introducing conflicts between packs. ... Putting five packs in the wilderness essentially all at one time would really be problematic for the population."
Each Mexican wolf wears a radio collar, and as part of an effort to reduce conflicts with ranchers who have cattle grazing rights near the wolf recovery area, radio telemetry receivers were given out to allow those ranchers to track where wolves are and manage their livestock to steer them away from wolves. But given the number of losses this year, Robinson says, the service should give wolves back their ability to hide by reclaiming those devices.
"They should not be given out to people who say things like 'I'm gonna go shoot a wolf,' but they are," he says. "We have radio-collared wolves that are going missing over and over again, and other radio-collared wolves that are showing up with bullet holes in them."
Each year, the Mexican wolf population is counted by helicopter and airplane, then wolves are captured to attach radio collars to allow the Interagency Field Team to gather information on their dispersal, territories, habit use and breeding, as well as to manage the wolves during any conflicts, including livestock depredations.
During the annual count, the field team also takes a blood sample for DNA analysis—which is how they know all the wolves in the wild are basically as genetically similar as siblings and new wolves need to be introduced to diversify the gene pool—and to check for disease and give vaccinations.
Losses this year included two Mexican wolves that died during the annual population count capture operations, one four days after it was released back into the wild, and one within minutes of being darted. No wolves had died during past annual count operations, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the techniques, protocol and drugs this year were the same as previous years. Necropsies on those wolves are still pending.