THE EDGE OF THE GILA WILDERNESS, N.M. -- A voice interrupted the crackle of the radio at basecamp: “Starting pursuit.”
The rest of the team on the ground was anxious to hear those words after the low-flying helicopter crew had been working all morning to get close to one of the Mexican gray wolves that had been targeted as part of an annual survey of the endangered predators.
For months, crews combed the rugged mountains of the southwestern United States, tracking collared wolves and looking for evidence of new packs to build the most accurate picture possible of just how many wolves are roaming the wild in New Mexico and Arizona.
The results of the painstaking effort were finally released Wednesday, revealing there are more wolves in the wild than at any time since federal wildlife managers initiated efforts to conserve the animals decades ago.
Since the first wolves were released in 1998, the program aimed at re-establishing the species across its historic range has had its share of fits and starts due to illegal shootings, courtroom battles and politics. The challenges are mounting as ranchers and rural residents say the situation for them has become untenable as 2019 marked a record year for livestock kills.
At least 163 wolves were counted during the recent survey. That marks a nearly 25% jump in the population from the previous year and puts wildlife managers about half way to meeting the goal that has been set for declaring the species recovered.
Officials say the population has increased an average of 15% annually over the last decade, marking what they consider to be a healthy pace.
"This is the second year we have seen a significant increase in the wild population of Mexican wolves, a success that is directly tied to the science-based, on-the-ground management efforts of the Interagency Field Team,” said Amy Lueders, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Southwest regional director.
The recent count found there were 42 packs in the wild and half of them had pups last spring. In all, about 90 pups were born last year and nearly 60% of them survived, beating the average survival rate for Mexican wolf pups.
The recovery team also placed 12 captive-born pups into five wild dens to boost the genetic variability of the wild population. The cross-fostering technique has been used for a few years now and appears to be paying off as four fostered wolves have survived to breeding age, resulting in multiple litters of pups born in the wild. Three more fostered wolves will reach breeding age this spring.
“You’ve got wild wolves raising those pups, teaching them to be wild rather than taking a captive adult that’s used to people and not used to killing and feeding itself. When you put those adults out in the wild, they’re the ones that tend to cause problems,” said Brady McGee, the Mexican gray wolf recovery coordinator. “The last few years, we’ve shied away from doing the adult releases for that reason and working more with the pups.”
No matter the number of wolves on the landscape, ranchers say the threat to their livelihood is becoming more dire. They point to the recent spike in the number of cattle kills.
In fact, 2019 marked a record with more livestock being killed than in any year since the first captive-bred wolves were released in 1998. Federal wildlife officials have been poring over the data to determine the reason for the increase and to develop potential strategies to reverse the upward trend.
Megan Richardson runs a cattle ranch with her husband near Beaverhead, in the heart of the wolf recovery zone. She said the predators have harassed her horses and that packs like to nibble on the back ends of her cattle, leaving them with open wounds.
Richardson and others believe there are more wolves in the wild than what the annual count turns up. She says she and her neighbors are the boots on the ground and see them regularly.
“Almost daily we pass volunteers who have the trackers who go out and track the wolves,” she said. “They won’t even stop and speak with us. It’s come to the point where it’s like they hate us, we hate them, they don’t want us there. We’re trying to survive and make a living and support our families so it’s beyond frustrating.”
Audrey McQueen, a single mother of four young children, said her ranch southwest of Reserve, New Mexico, has been hit hard over the last year as there are three packs that roam the mountainous area that includes her spread. She said her losses due to cattle and calf kills average about $50,000 annually but it could be more than a year before ranchers see any money from the claims they file with a co-existence council set up to address some of the financial effects of the reintroduction.
“We can’t even have a normal life,” McQueen said. “We work all day and at night we’re driving up and down, shining the light just trying to haze off wolves. Everyone is worn out. Normal stuff is building fence and riding and we’re not even able to do that because all we are is wolf patrol.”
Richardson and McQueen say they've tried to work with federal officials to haze the wolves but nothing has worked.
SEARCHING FOR SOLUTIONS
Unlike wolf reintroductions in Yellowstone and the northern United States, wildlife managers in the Southwest are faced with a climate that has encouraged a year-round calving season, meaning conflicts between livestock and wolves are constant rather than just a few months out of the year.
“The ranching culture is passed on from one generation to the next and they’ve always done it this way. With the wolves here, they do need to do things a little different,” McGee said. “We’ve been talking with a few of the ranchers and throwing a few ideas out.”
Those include calving in the late spring or early summer when there are also elk calves in the wild to lessen the pressure on livestock herds. McGee also has suggested moving herds further from wolf den sites during calving season.
Ranchers say that's not always possible since the cattle need to be where feed is available and there are certain pastures that need to be avoided at certain times of the year due noxious weeds, making the chess game nearly impossible.
Last year, 184 livestock kills were confirmed across New Mexico and Arizona and ranchers say some cases went unreported. Wildlife managers acknowledge the problems and are trying to determine what might be behind the spike.
“Every partner that's engaged, that’s our top priority going into 2020 — figuring out some really good solutions for the depredation because it’s not a sustainable level for anybody,” said Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Aislinn Maestas.
There already are a lot of tools in the chest — from range riders on horseback who scare the wolves away with cracker shots to flagging along fence lines and sometimes feeding caches to draw the wolves away from the cattle.
In December alone, the wolf team conducted more than two dozen days and nights of hazing in problem areas and maintained one diversionary food cache. The work has continued this year and there are regular calls and meetings with ranchers.
Still, McGee said it's been hard overcoming the lore attached to the predators. “There’s still a huge misconception about wolves out there," he said. "People think wolves are big bad dangerous animals.”
Once common throughout the Southwest U.S. and northern Mexico, the Mexican gray wolf is now the rarest subspecies of gray wolf in North America. It was all but eliminated by the 1970s, prompting the federal government to develop a captive breeding program.
Environmentalists have pushed for years for releasing more captive wolves into the wild, saying the current population is not sustainable without constant human intervention and cannot withstand current mortality rates. There were 14 wolves found dead in the wild in 2019, far less than the 21 documented the year before.
“Ensuring that wolves and people can coexist is an essential part of long-term success,” said Bryan Bird with Defenders of Wildlife. “The Mexican gray wolf is an integral part of southwestern ecosystems and we must do everything we can to ensure the species is given the protections they need to survive."
Back at basecamp on the edge of the Gila National Forest, it looks like a NASCAR pit stop. All hands are on deck as the team scrambles to process the wolf that had just been darted and captured. They have to work quickly.
The young male is weighed and measured. Teeth are checked. Blood is drawn. Vaccines are given. Its temperature is taken repeatedly to ensure it's not in distress. A new collar is affixed as it's stretched out on the bed of a pickup truck.
Activity swirls all about, but the wolf is nearly motionless, except for the occasional lick of its tongue.
“We have a really good crew,” biologist Maggie Dwire says. “A lot of these people have been doing it for a really long time so it’s a pretty well-oiled machine when an animal comes in. It may look like chaos, but it’s organized chaos.”
With a collective breath, the team then loads the wolf back onto the helicopter, the blades spin up and away it goes.