High Country News (Original) Posted August 8, 2016 by Cally Carswell
Missteps and conflict between the state and the feds have hounded the recovery of Arizona and New Mexico’s remaining wolf packs.
On a breezy January day, in a double-wide outside Alpine, Arizona, a wolf lay on a large wooden conference table. He was tranquilized but very much alive. His ribs rose and fell, and his body twitched. He was blindfolded and muzzled, and compulsively licked his dark nose. His white, black and cinnamon-colored fur was long and coarse, except around the ears, where it was soft. Veterinarian Susan Dicks massaged his belly. It felt mushy, like raw meat. It felt like he’d had a meal.
The people in the room spoke in whispers and worked quickly. Hands gloved in black latex, a few of them jockeyed around the table, drawing blood, administering vaccines, measuring the wolf’s long, pearly canines, and swabbing the dart wound on his rump.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had captured him during its annual winter census, when agency biologists try to count every endangered Mexican wolf in the forested mountains of western New Mexico and eastern Arizona. His “name” was M1296, “M” for male, and biologists caught him in order to replace his radio collar.
It was remarkable that he was here at all. In April 2013, he stepped in a trap set for coyotes on private land in New Mexico, and it took biologists three hours to reach him. “He had abrasions, broken teeth. He just looked terrible,” recalled Julia Smith, who works out of this field office for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. “I thought, ‘He’s not going to make it.’ ”
He did make it, though, and even found a mate. Then another setback: In 2014, an unknown gunman shot her. Eventually, M1296 wooed another female, F1439. They established a territory, and earned a name, the Mangas Pack. At 74 pounds, M1296 was healthy and well-fed. On a scale of 1 to 5, Dicks rated his body condition a 4.
On the surface, things seemed to be looking up for the entire Mexican wolf population. In 1998, after Mexican wolves were poisoned and shot out of existence here, the Fish and Wildlife Service reintroduced 11 wolves, with the initial goal of growing their numbers to 100. After years of struggle, the population crossed that threshold for the first time in 2015. Biologists counted 110 animals, a 25 percent increase over the previous year. M1296 was among 97 wolves counted in this year’s census.
Yet trouble lurks even in these historic numbers. As the population expands, it’s also edging toward a genetic crisis, and the larger the population gets, the harder it will be to avert. M1296 is descended from a fantastically successful matriarch called AF521, “A” for alpha. His mate is, too. Their story is typical. In fact, biologists know of only one breeding female in the wild that isn’t related to AF521. Wolves shouldn’t sleep with their relatives for the same reason people shouldn’t. Inbreeding can cause dangerous disorders, depress fertility, and even make small populations more vulnerable to extinction. But right now, the Southwest’s Mexican wolves don’t have much choice. On average, they share about as much genetic material as siblings do. They need new blood, and quick.