On Wednesday, January 16, a four-year-old Mexican gray wolf (Canis lupus baileyi) named M1133 took the first careful steps out of his crate into Arizona’s Apache National Forest, near the New Mexico border. It was the first time he had ever been in the wild. Officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the Arizona Game and Fish Department hope that the captive-bred M1133 will now join the seven-member Bluestem wolf pack, whose alpha male was illegally killed by a hunter in 2012. If he breeds with the pack’s alpha female—who has not yet taken a new mate—it could bring a vital element of genetic diversity to a small group.
But even if M1133 does become a father, will his contribution be enough to develop a sustainable population for these critically endangered wolves? Including M1133, fewer than 60 Mexican gray wolves—North America’s smallest and rarest wolves—exist in the wild, few of which are breeding. Nearly 300 more live in captive-breeding facilities in the U.S. and Mexico. All of the Mexican gray wolves alive today are the descendants of just five animals that were captured in 1973 after the subspecies was slaughtered into near-extinction by government agencies seeking to protect cattle and other livestock.
Luckily, efforts to breed the animals in zoos and other facilities have been successful enough to allow some wolves to return to the wild. The Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Program made the first reintroductions in 1998, when 11 wolves were released in Arizona. More animals were released in that state and New Mexico in the following years, but M1133 marks the first release since 2008.
Unfortunately, the animals have not done exceptionally well in the wild— mostly because of humans. Five of the first 11 reintroduced wolves died in 1998—four were illegally shot and one died after a vehicle collision. The highest mortality rate was in 2008 when 13 wolves died (pdf). More recently, eight wolves were killed in 2011: three were shot, two were struck by vehicles and three more died of natural causes. Four wolves were killed in 2012, including three that were illegally shot and a fourth whose cause of death is still under investigation.
We know of these deaths because the wild wolves are closely monitored. Like many of his kind in the wild, M1133 bears a bright green radio collar that will help biologists keep track of his movements. He will be observed to make sure he does not get into any situations that will cause conflict with humans or livestock.
While M1133 gets his bearings, conservation groups are pushing for further releases. Last December the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) sued the FWS, seeking additional protections and a new recovery plan for Mexican gray wolves. Although they are currently protected under the Endangered Species Act, the wild wolves are labeled a “nonessential experimental population” (pdf), which means they can be removed from the wild at any time. Most recently a female wolf was captured in New Mexico after she killed several cows and moved to a sanctuary in Arizona.
Michael Robinson, a conservation advocate with the CBD, told Cronkite News Service that FWS should be releasing “dozens of wolves” to expand the wild population. FWS spokesman Tom Buckley said most of the captive-bred wolves are not candidates for release with M1133; their genetics are not right for the area. M1133 was selected because he offered genetic diversity to the existing pack, according to an FWS press release (pdf).
Update February 16: It was reported today that M1133 was not accepted by his new pack and had moved into an area where he was unlikely to find a mate and breed. He has been recaptured and returned to captivity. He may be re-released again at a later date.
Previously in Extinction Countdown:
Photos: Arizona Game and Fish Department