(CN) – An experimental population of rare Mexican wolves has increased by more than 10 percent in the last year, but their fate is far from ensured. The news was announced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on behalf of the Mexican Wolf Interagency Field Team.
“We are encouraged by these numbers, but these 2016 results demonstrate we are still not out of the woods with this experimental population and its anticipated contribution to Mexican wolf recovery,” USFWS Southwest Regional Director Benjamin Tuggle said. “Our goal is to achieve an average annual growth rate of 10 percent in the Mexican wolf population. The service and our partners remain focused and committed to making this experimental population genetically healthy and robust so that it can contribute to recovery of the Mexican wolf in the future. We all understand the challenges we face as we try to increase the wild population of this endangered species.”
One of the challenges the team faces is continuing resistance from Arizona and New Mexico to the release of the wolves into the larger Mexican Wolf Experimental Population Area which straddles both states. Currently, the wolves have only been released into one zone of the population area. New Mexico won an injunction against the USFWS last year to stop wolf releases into the wild, which the agency is appealing.
“New Mexico is paving a path that could lead to Mexican gray wolf extinction. For the past six months the state’s preliminary injunction has stopped all Mexican gray wolf releases into the wild in New Mexico, which have already been few and far between. Releases are crucial to increase lobo numbers and improve their genetic diversity in the wild,” Bryan Bird, southwest program director for the Defenders of Wildlife group said.
In the larger picture, the effort to re-establish wolves and other top predators in the United States may be seriously hampered by a new administration that has nominated anti-environment appointees to head environment-related agencies, by the possibility that Congressional republicans may do away with the Endangered Species Act altogether, and by actions to undermine previous ESA-related legislation, such as House Joint Resolution 69, put forward by Alaska’s representative Don Young.
HJR 69 aims to eliminate an ESA protection finalized last August to stop “predator control” tactics that include killing black bear cubs, and wolf and coyote pups in their dens in national wildlife refuges in Alaska. “From the beginning, I said I would do everything in my power to overturn this illegal jurisdictional power grab by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Today, we’re one step closer to delivering on that commitment and eliminating a wrongful seizure of Alaska’s fish and wildlife management authority,” Don Young said after the bill easily passed a roll call vote in the House last week, 225 to 193.
“Rolling back protections for predators defies everything wildlife refuges stand for,” Emily Jeffers, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity environmental group, said. “Refuges are places where we celebrate biological diversity, not where wolves and bears are inhumanely killed for no good reason. It’s an outrage that Congress would revoke rules that stop the senseless slaughter of predators, heedless of the important role these animals play in healthy ecosystems.”
The Mexican wolf, the rarest subspecies of gray wolves and one of the most endangered mammals in North America, was virtually wiped out by deliberate poisoning and trapping from 1915 through 1973, carried out primarily by government agencies and livestock ranchers. In 1973, the Endangered Species Act was passed and attitudes about management practices began to change as the importance of predator species to healthy ecosystems became better understood. Nevertheless, negative public attitudes about predator species continue to persist, and environmental groups have pushed against agency foot-dragging for decades through the petition process and through litigation.
“We have reached a critical turning point for wolf recovery across the country. Wolves have helped revitalize and restore our ecosystems. Where there are healthy wolves, there are healthy landscapes,” Defenders of Wildlife vice president of field conservation programs Nancy Gloman said. “Will the Trump administration shoulder its moral obligation to preserve our valuable natural places and wildlife heritage for future generations to enjoy like we do? Will our children and grandchildren be able to hear the howl of wolves in the wild? Defenders of Wildlife knows where it stands. We need more wolves, less politics. We will continue to fight for the restoration, recovery and conservation of these iconic species in suitable habitat across the country no matter what.”
In 1977, the service started a bi-national captive breeding program in partnership with Mexico with just seven Mexican wolves, and began releasing the wolves in Arizona and New Mexico within the Mexican Wolf Experimental Population Area in 1998. The Mexican Wolf Interagency Field Team includes biologists from the USFWS, Arizona Game and Fish Department, the White Mountain Apache Tribe, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service and Wildlife Service. The Chicago Zoological Society and the Endangered Wolf Center have also helped with captive breeding and reintroduction through cross-fostering efforts, where captive-bred pups are placed into wild litters to increase the genetic diversity in the pack.