The annual Mexican gray wolf population survey in Alpine, Ariz., shows that poaching is slowing the species' recovery.

After the wild Mexican wolf population tops 100 for the first time, 15 illegal shootings may slow recovery.

ALPINE — Biologists hauled a 60-pound Mexican gray wolf from the chopper on Monday, limp but healthy with a lush winter mane. They called it the wolf's worst day in months — dazed from having been darted from above, still rapidly licking his nose through a blindfold muzzle — but the male wolf was one of the fortunate among a divisive and still-embattled breed that has weathered an especially perilous year of poachings.

Unknown shooters have illegally killed at least 15 Mexican wolves since officials reported a year ago that a record 110 were roaming wild in eastern Arizona and western New Mexico, according to a lead state biologist on the recovery program.

The poaching losses tripled from 2014, and were likely unprecedented in the 18 years since the first captive-bred lobos brought their once-exiled howls back to the Blue Range spanning the Apache and Gila national forests.

Wolf-recovery specialists, like those in Alpine this week, are working to make sure the survivors flourish instead of backsliding to a more critically endangered status.

The team of federal and state biologists carried Wolf No. M1342 on a mesh sling. They brought the wolf inside their pine-ringed Alpine field station and slid him onto a slab wooden table for a checkup and shots to keep him robust for an important breeding season this spring. They injected a second sedative that would put the wolf out cold for about an hour.

The scientists gathered round the Elk Horn pack's would-be alpha male, prodding veins for intravenous fluids and pushing an oxygen tube up his black nostrils.They were counting on the wolf to return healthy to his young mate on snowy Escudilla Mountain, and produce their first successful litter to help extend recent annual gains in a slow-recovering population.

As recently as five years ago, there were an estimated 50 Mexican wolves in the wild, less than half of last year's count. Whether this year's survey finds the population continuing to grow will depend on the 40 or so pups observed since last spring. Historically, about half of pups have survived their first year.

Besides the wolves that were shot, about a dozen more adults are missing, "fate unknown."
M1342 was lucky to have a dart dangling from his paw, and not a trail of lead fragments through his chest. Shootings have always been a key threat since the 1998 reintroduction.

The anti-wolf mentality commonly known as "shoot, shovel and shut up" is hard to combat. Bullets typically pass through a wolf's body and leave little useful evidence, said Jeff Dolphin, Mexican wolf field supervisor for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. "You just can't be everywhere at once," Dolphin said.

Only a handful of what may be dozens of shooters have faced charges related to killing one of the protected wolves since 1998. Federal, state and non-governmental organizations offer a combined reward of up to $58,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of a wolf poacher.

A controversial task

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service veterinarian Susan Dicks coached the team of biologists and field technicians tending to M1342: how to draw blood for DNA and other tests; where to inject a rabies vaccine; how to determine age by measuring teeth; how to increase fluids or pour cooling alcohol on the paws if his temperature rises past 103 or so.

Besides the preventive medicine and data collection, the prime objective for M1342's capture during a yearly aerial wolf survey was to fit it with a new transmitter collar. The collar he had received in a similar operation last year hadn't functioned, so biologists only knew the wolf's whereabouts by occasional observation. Uncollared wolves are difficult to track to ensure they're not getting into trouble, such as by attacking livestock.

Not every wild Mexican wolf is collared, but scientists like to have them on a wolf of every generation in a pack. Last year's survey counted 19 packs, including eight known to have a breeding pair.

Studies show that these free-ranging wolves eat elk upward of 80 percent of the time, but cows are also occasionally on the menu. A government and non-profit fund pays for the losses. So far, the wolf program has paid out $68,000 for 50 confirmed livestock losses in 2015, and another $25,000 in claims is awaiting action by a compensation council. "It's such a controversial program, and (people) want us to manage these animals," Dicks explained. "The way we manage is with that collar. It communicates and tells us what they're doing."

The latest in a string of political struggles over the lightweight cousin of more plentiful northern gray wolves involves where they should be allowed.
Wolf advocates say they need unoccupied territory such as the forests around the Grand Canyon to sustain a population large and dispersed enough to withstand sudden die-offs. The governors of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah recently co-signed a letter to the federal program opposing such a northern expansion into previously undocumented wolf territory and instead backing a push south into Mexico.

The number of wolves needed to ensure long-term survival also is in dispute. Some want to hold the line around today's numbers, but others say at least a sevenfold increase is needed.