The federal government says recent surveys show that at least two captive-born Mexican gray wolf pups released this spring into wild litters in Arizona are surviving in their new homes — a milestone for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Mexican Wolf Recovery Program.

A handful of the endangered wolf pups born at the Brookfield Zoo in Illinois and at the Endangered Wolf Center in Missouri were paired with wild litters of a similar age in Arizona and New Mexico. On Tuesday, the Fish and Wildlife Service and its partners in the project — the Chicago Zoological Society, the Endangered Wolf Center and the Arizona Department of Game and Fish — said captive-born pups released into two Arizona packs are still thriving, based on surveys conducted in mid-September.

Since the federal government began reintroducing Mexican gray wolves into the wild in 1998, this is the first time pups bred in captivity were successfully cross-fostered, or released into a wild litter with the hope that they will be accepted into the pack. Wolf recovery experts say the practice of cross-fostering is a crucial part of strengthening wild packs by introducing genetic diversity.



But the program faces challenges from state government officials and residents who oppose wolf releases, as well as the complexities of combining the litters: ensuring the birth dates of the captive and wild pups are nearly aligned, transporting and handling the tiny pups when they are just days old and finding the wild den.

And there is always a big possibility that the wild pack will reject the newborn interlopers.

In April, biologists, wildlife experts and Fish and Wildlife Service officials hiked through the Gila Wilderness in southwestern New Mexico, carrying two 9-day-old Mexican wolf pups. They weighed just a pound each, and their eyes and ears were still sealed shut.

Officials haven’t yet determined the fate of those pups, which reignited a fierce debate between the state of New Mexico and the federal government over the wolf recovery efforts.

Some state officials, ranchers and other residents who live in the rural areas near release sites in New Mexico oppose efforts to increase the population of wild Mexican wolves, saying the species poses dangers to people, pets and livestock.

Blair Dunn, an attorney for ranching groups, told the Western Livestock Journal last week that in order for Mexican gray wolf recovery efforts to be successful in the U.S., “they’ll have to wipe out cattle ranching.”

The success of the cross-fostering program in Arizona is the second victory for wolf recovery advocates in as many weeks.

On Oct. 18, U.S. District Judge Jennifer Guerin Zipps in Arizona ruled that the Fish and Wildlife Service must develop a comprehensive species management plan for Mexican gray wolves in the Southwest by November 2017. She essentially rejected ranchers’ concerns about the species reintroduction program. Wolf advocates said this was the first guarantee that the federal government will take actions to save the species before it disappears entirely.

At last count in 2015, there were just 97 wild Mexican gray wolves in Arizona and New Mexico, though officials documented more 40 pups in the wild this summer, including six from the cross-fostering program. Not all of them will survive until the year’s end.

There are also more than 240 captive wolves housed in the U.S. and Mexico.

The state of New Mexico has denied the Fish and Wildlife Service permission to release Mexican wolves here since 2015, questioning the science in the federal agency’s current species management plan. Fish and Wildlife officials have said they don’t need a state permit to act in compliance with the Endangered Species Act, but the state disagrees.

Following the release of the wolf pups near Catron County in April, the state filed a lawsuit alleging Fish and Wildlife had violated state and federal laws. The suit asked the court to order the federal government to remove the pups and sought a restraining order on any further wolf releases.

A judge agreed that the federal agency must obtain a state permit before conducting further releases but declined to have the pups removed.

The Fish and Wildlife Service’s oversight of the wolf program in New Mexico also was called into question this summer when a report found evidence of mismanagement. U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., said that report showed the federal wolf recovery program should be suspended until the problems are fixed and that the species' management should be placed in the hands of the state.

Bryan Bird, the Southwest regional director for the nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife, said the advocacy group is “cautiously encouraged by the successful cross-fostering” in Arizona, but he said it cannot be the only tool used to recover the endangered wolf species.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service is still going to need to release adult wolves into the wild and come up with a really defensible recovery plan,” he said.

Contact Rebecca Moss at 505-986-3011 or rmoss@sfnewmexican.com.

Clarification, Oct. 26, 2016

Clarification: This story has been amended to reflect the following clarification. A previous version of this story reported that Rep. Steve Pearce, D-N.M., supports the abandonment of Mexican wolf recovery efforts. While the congressman has supported legislation that would suspend the federal Mexican wolf recovery program, and has said the species should be removed from the endangered species list, he believes this should be done in order to place species management back into the authority of the state. Todd Willens, the congressman’s chief of staff, said Pearce, “supports the conservation of the species.”

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