By Susan Montoya Bryan
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — More Mexican gray wolves live in the wild in the Southwest than at any time since the federal government began reintroducing the endangered predator in the region, officials said Friday.
An annual survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service showed at least 83 wolves are spread among forested lands in southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona.
The population is nearly double what it was in 2009. Last year, when the animals made their biggest stride, the survey turned up at least 75 wolves.
Fish and Wildlife Service Regional Director Benjamin Tuggle said he was still concerned the program faces hurdles but believes biologists have worked out a formula for managing the wolves that is starting to show dividends.
Tuggle attributed the population increase to what scientists and managers have learned about the wolves since reintroduction began in 1998.
"Whether we want to admit it or not, this is an experimental population and the wolves are teaching us as much as we're trying to manage them," he said. "We are taking advantage of the knowledge that we've had in terms of trying to focus on things like wild-born pups and making sure that we keep an eye on the genetics."
A subspecies of the gray wolf, the Mexican wolf was added to the federal endangered species list in 1976.
The reintroduction effort has been hampered by politics, illegal killings and other factors. Disputes over management of the program have spurred numerous legal actions by environmentalists who have pushed for more wolves to be released and by ranchers who are concerned about their livelihoods and safety in rural communities.
Despite the increase in wolf numbers, federal wildlife officials are still concerned about ensuring genetic diversity. Inbreeding can cause a number of problems, including low survivability among pups.
The latest survey shows seven of the 14 packs that were documented last year produced pups, 17 of which survived through the end of the year.
Tuggle said wild-born pups seem to have what it takes to survive in the wild and avoid problems with human interaction.
Some environmentalists were disappointed in the latest population figures, saying the agency needs to release more than just a couple of new wolves every year if it wants to boost the gene pool.
Still, Arizona Game and Fish Assistant Director Jim deVos said the recovery program that some had deemed a failure now stands to serve as an example of conservation success if the population gains continue.