This month, a 4-year-old Mexican gray wolf known as M1133 is getting a taste of the wild after being released into Arizona’s Apache National Forest in the hope that he will join the Bluestem wolf pack, whose alpha male was illegally killed last year.
M1133′s release marks the first time a Mexican gray wolf has been released since 2008. The species once roamed vast portions of the Southwest and Mexico, but were eradicated by the 1900s in the U.S. over conflicts with humans and livestock, while populations dwindled in Mexico.
In the 1980s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) approved the Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan, which recommended a captive breeding program and supported a goal of maintaining at least 100 wolves in their historic range.
Fish and Wildlife officials hope that M1133 will pair up with the Bluestem pack’s alpha female, who has still not chosen a new mate. However, some are still concerned that even if he does, it still will not boost their small population.
As of now, the number of Mexican gray wolves in the wild is estimated to be less than 60 in New Mexico and Arizona with just six breeding pairs, and recovery efforts have been an uphill battle. In 2011 eight wolves were killed, while four more were killed last year – three of whom were illegally shot. Most recently, an alpha female from the Fox Mountain pack was slated to be shot for allegedly preying on livestock, but after public outcry she was captured last October and sent to the Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center in Arizona.
Officials are also dragging their feet over releasing additional wolves. There are currently an estimated 300 wolves who are part of the species survival program who are being housed at facilities in the U.S. and Mexico.
Conservation groups have been continuously fighting to get more protection for these wolves and to have more released. The Center for Biological Diversity filed a notice of intent to sue this winter over the USFWS’ move to grant itself a “recovery permit” to live-capture endangered wolves that may enter New Mexico and Arizona from Mexico or the Rocky Mountains without a public comment period, environmental review or demonstrating how this would aid recovery.
“Taking wolves out of perfectly good habitat makes no sense. We need to recover wolves to the Sierra Madre and Sky Islands, as well as the mountains of northern New Mexico,” said Michael Robinson, the Center’s wolf specialist, who noted that wolves don’t recognize political boundaries.
According to the Center, captured wolves will be placed into the captive-breeding program, returned to where they came from, or relocated into the Mexican wolf recovery area. However, the permit would protect anyone who killed a wolf and according to Robinson, live-capture can be dangerous for these animals.
“There have been 18 instances in which wolves have been accidentally killed as a consequence of capture, as well as instances where they’ve lost legs that have had to be amputated because of trap injuries,” he told the Cibola Beacon, adding that capture can also disrupt breeding pairs and leave pups without parents.
The Center has two other active lawsuits against the USFWS, one to compel it to reform the reintroduction program and the other is to get the Mexican gray wolf protection as a distinct subspecies of the gray wolf.
“The Mexican wolf is a unique animal that’s adapted to the arid Southwest and to Mexico. And it’s on the brink of extinction. We could lose the Mexican wolf, and we’re fighting to ensure that we don’t,” said Robinson.
The USFWS has until late February to respond to the Center’s notice.
Photo credit: Don Burkett