Photo by Lydia Curry/Cronkite News: Arizona Game and Fish Department biologist Bailey Dilgard carries an alpha female wolf from a helicopter in Alpine on Jan. 26, to hand her off to Pamela Maciel Cabañas, the sanctuary manager at the Wolf Haven International in Washington state.
By Grace Mack/Cronkite News
ALPINE – On a frigid morning in late January, biologists set out in a helicopter to begin the annual Mexican wolf population count with hopes of finding at least one more wolf than last year.
Their painstaking work helps identify the number of wolves in Arizona and New Mexico. It is vital to the Mexican Wolf Recovery Program that began 25 years ago when the animals were nearly extinct.
Since 1998, when 11 Mexican wolves raised in captivity were released in eastern Arizona, the population has increased to 196, with 84 found in Arizona and 112 in New Mexico. Wildlife officials hope to identify more during this year’s count. Those numbers are expected to be released in March.
“These guys are flying around with no doors on the helicopters so that they can capture a wolf to put a collar on it,” said Jim Devos, who has been with the Arizona Game and Fish Department for 45 years and has been the Mexican wolf coordinator since the program began. He is one of many state and federal wildlife biologists who have dedicated their careers to managing the species.
The Mexican Wolf Recovery Program began in 1998 to save the population from near extinction. Numbers show the effort is gaining momentum: In the last six years, the population has doubled, from 98 in 2015 to 196 in last year’s count.
The increase gives wildlife officials hope that the program will reach its goal of 320 wolves sustained for eight years in the Mexican Wolf Experimental Population Area, a huge area that encompasses southern Arizona and New Mexico. Once the number of Mexican wolves reaches the population goal, the animal will be removed from the endangered species list and listed as a threatened species instead.
“When I first started here in 2008, the population was in the 50s,” said Allison Greenleaf, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Steadily, it’s been going up and up and it’s just a great thing to see.”
The project is managed by the wildlife service in collaboration with the Arizona Game and Fish Department, the U.S. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, and the White Mountain Apache Tribe. All play key roles.
“Every single day we have folks in the field, on the ground, monitoring the wolves, and actively working to be proactive,” said Paul Greer, interagency field team leader for Arizona Game and Fish.
When recovery started, wolves were bred, raised in captivity, and released as adults. Greer said because the population is now stable, biologists introduce captive-bred pups to a mother who already has pups near the same age and hope they thrive in their adopted family.
That’s done to introduce new genetics into the population, Greenleaf said.
Breeding season for the Mexican wolves begins in late January, so it is crucial for biologists to finish the population count as soon as possible to track the number of pups born and surviving in 2023.
During the recent capture and release mission, two wolves were found. Biologists collected data including weight and temperature, checked their health, and attached collars to track the wolves and their pack. The wolf’s body condition was also scored from one to five, with five being the highest.
One of the wolves captured was an alpha female from the Castle Rock pack. Her body condition during the capture was rated a four, which is very good, according to Greer. She weighed a healthy 65 pounds.
But the success of the Mexican wolf program is not without controversy.
Roz Switzer is a member of the women-led grassroots organization Great Old Broads for Wilderness. Its members believe that, despite the population increase, not enough is being done to resuscitate the wolf population.
“We’ve had no meaningful progress on Mexican wolf recovery without losses,” she said. “If we continue with the course we’re on, then I don’t see the species ever becoming self-sustaining. And I believe that they would eventually have a second extinction.”
The opinions of the Great Old Broads align with the Grand Canyon chapter of the Sierra Club. Following the release of the 2021 population count, the club said political opposition to expanding the habitat has hampered the recovery of the species.
Devos of the Arizona Game and Fish Department said he disagreed with those assessments. He said the department tries to balance the interests of lawful livestock grazing and wolf recovery.
“We do the right thing for the wolf,” he said, “without favor to any particular group or interest, because that’s what our jobs are.”
Employees with Arizona Game and Fish say that the progress of the wolves is encouraging, considering the animal’s past.
During the early 1900s, Mexican wolves were believed to pose a threat to humans in Arizona and Mexico. The federal government instituted efforts to eliminate wolves to protect cattle and other animals.
With the Endangered Species Act established in 1973, the wolves are now protected.
“It wasn’t long ago that the federal government was sanctioning wolf removals,” Greer said. “That was just several generations ago, and now we have this effort through the Endangered Species Act to recover Mexican wolves.”
Wolves play a key role in keeping ecosystems healthy, according to Defenders of Wildlife. They keep deer and elk populations in check, which can benefit many other plant and animal species.
Ranchers in Arizona are not convinced that wolves are as important as their cattle. Many cattle farmers see the reintroduction of wolves as a threat.
In order to appease concerns, ranchers have been compensated for depredations since the wolves were first reintroduced in 1998. In 2015 the Arizona Livestock Loss Board was formed. Ranchers can submit claims to the board for cattle depredation when they can prove Mexican wolves killed their animal.
The board reported paying out more than $143,000 in claims by 2019, the last year for which a report can be found.