Expert: Still a Long Road Ahead for Mexican Wolf Recovery
PHOENIX – Endangered Mexican gray wolves living in the wilds of eastern Arizona and western New Mexico saw an improvement last year.
A wolf count by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shows their numbers, rising from 58 to 75.
But scientists and wildlife advocates remain troubled by the lack of genetic diversity in the service’s wolf reintroduction program.
Arizona State University biology professor Philip Hedrick says there just aren't enough wolf pairs having pups.
"To me, the big concern is just three breeding pairs, instead of last year they said there were six,” he says. “The number of breeding pairs is down."
Hedrick believes 70 percent of the wolves in the Arizona-New Mexico recovery program are descended from just three original wolves. He'd like to see more wolves released from the 300 or so in a parallel captive breeding program, but only one captive wolf has been released in the last four years.
Hedrick says the lack of genetic diversity among the wolves leads to what is called "inbreeding depression," which tends to slow population growth in a number of ways.
"Viability, so the individuals may not survive as well,” he adds. “Litter size may be lower. They may not mate as well."
There is no official goal for the wolf recovery program to be deemed a success, although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working to develop such a goal.
When Hedrick was part of a wolf recovery team about eight years ago, it recommended up to 1,000 wolves in each of three regions, adding northern New Mexico and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.
"We're trying to think about the long term here,” Hedrick says. “Our goal was to have a population that would survive in perpetuity. And that's what we were recommending. "
The reintroduction program began with the release of captive wolves near Alpine in 1998. The program has been hampered by rancher opposition and illegal killings, including four in the past year.