Mexican Grey Wolf Returns from Brink of Extinction

Graphic by Annabel Driussi for ODP

by Natasha Lasky, ODP Staff Writer

The rarest subspecies of grey wolf in North America has doubled its population over the last five years. While the Mexican wolf had teetered on the brink of extinction, there are now 186 Mexican grey wolves in the wild in New Mexico and Arizona as a result of protections granted to the wolves under the Endangered Species Act. This is the fifth straight year that the species’ numbers have increased. 

Promising Numbers: The latest survey shows that there were 114 wolves in New Mexico and 72 in Arizona, a 14% increase from the previous year. Meanwhile, in 2019, the wolf population increased by almost 25%.

Brady McGee, the Mexican wolf recovery coordinator at the Fish and Wildlife Service, told the Guardian that about half of the 124 pups that were born in 2020 survived, standard for the average survival rate for Mexican wolf pups.

Why This Matters: Bringing Mexican wolves to the wild southwest has been a success in conservation. That said, this victory has been hard-won. Because wolves are predators, many opposed reintroducing them to the southwest’s ecosystems. 

In May 2016, Caren Cowan executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association, summed up the prevailing attitude in an interview with the Guardian: “It threatens families, it threatens their pets, it threatens their private property. The federal government is turning out a predator to steal private property with no compensation.”

Because of these concerns, the wolf population had been depleted by poaching, and caused disruptions to their habitats, like explosions in the elk population. In the 1970s, the Mexican wolf was almost totally extinct.

The US created a captive breeding program, rearing about 350 Mexican wolves in more than 55 zoos and other facilities across the US and Mexico, and introduced them in the wild. The relative success of this program has engendered some hope: Brian McGee said in a statement: “We are thrilled to see this number continuing to rise.”

Room for Improvement: Though their numbers have improved tremendously, the Mexican grey wolf is still at risk. Breeding wolves in captivity and then bringing them to the wild can only be effective as long as their human neighbors can stop illegally poaching them.

This could be a problem, as the southwest’s temperate climate allows ranchers to raise calves year-round, making wolf attacks a perennial problem rather than a seasonal one. Moreover, ranchers have reported that wolves have become more daring and insolent, causing wolf predation to increase. 

That said, conservationists suggest that restoring the Mexican wolf population could be possible if the federal government makes protecting this species a priority. 


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