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Conservation advocate Michael Robinson, with the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, said he is heartened by the recent bump in population to 83 individuals.
“But that’s still perilously low in terms of individual animals, and more alarming is that there are only five breeding pairs,” he said from his home in southern New Mexico, just on the edge of the Gila National Forest. “That reflects, in part, the inbreeding depression that’s afflicting the population; that is, the low pup survival rates and the low number of pups born in each litter on average.”
In the case of the two wolves captured last year, the euthanized male wolf’s testicles were harvested as part of an effort to ensure that with the passage of time, researchers are not losing genetic diversity.
“We started the program from seven founding wolves,” Barrett said, “and we have to manage against the inbreeding of individuals.”
While Robinson supports some of the agency’s changes, including those involving where wolves are released and can roam, he said many others in the proposal are counterproductive to recovery. Two of these include the loosening of restrictions on killing Mexican gray wolves and a pledge to remove wolves that cross into northern New Mexico and Arizona.
“The modeling shows that in order to get the number of wolves that would truly get the subspecies out of danger of extinction on the landscape, you would have to have a significant number of wolves in the Grand Canyon and southern Rockies,” he said. “If you prevent the movement of wolves into those areas, you are thwarting recovery.”
Bangs, the retired wolf recovery coordinator, said wolf biologists have it tough in the Southwestern United States compared with programs farther north.
In addition to having less land and fewer wolves to draw from than the programs in the northern Rockies and Great Lakes programs, the Southwest program not only originated from just seven animals — four of which were in captivity — but most Mexican gray wolves today still come from captive breeding programs.
“Those are questionable genetics,” Bangs said. “The characteristics that allow an animal to survive in captivity are the opposite of those you need in the wild.”
And while Bangs sees people as potential barriers to the recovery program’s success, he is optimistic it can work.
“Humans persecuted wolves for thousands of years, and the idea of restoring them is, what, 50 years old?” he said, adding that the Mexican gray wolf recovery is making progress — even when compared with those successful programs in the Northern United States with thousands of wolves. “We need to take a deep breath and take the perspective of time: This has been the hardest program to do, and it’s going to take a little more time.”
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