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Mexican wolf fostering program celebrates a new record

A Mexican wolf pup
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
A Mexican wolf pup

The effort to bring back Mexican wolves into the environment is a long one — and a controversial one. A few decades ago, they were nearly decimated. But, as U.S. Fish & Wildlife has worked to reintroduce them in this region of the world, ranchers have spoken out against it — saying they kill their livestock. They’ve also faced opposition from environmentalists, who have sued over the program, saying it violates the Endangered Species Act.

But now, the people in charge of the program here in Arizona say a record 27 wolf pups were fostered into wild dens this spring — improving the genetic diversity of the recovery population and, according to some, proving the program can be successful.

Jim deVos is the Mexican wolf coordinator for the Arizona Game & Fish Department. The Show spoke with him more about the record — and just how they get these wolf pups into wild dens.

Full conversation

JIM DEVOS: All of these rules that we have to put out into the wild come from captive program. The choice is you can either do adults or you can do fostered pups. The agencies have chosen fostered pups for a number of reasons. One is, it gives us the ability to take a, a small number of pups, say four from a zoo and put two in one area and two in another area. So we're actually amplifying the genetics of recovery.

LAUREN GILGER: So when you say put two in one area and a couple in another area, you mean, like someone goes in and actually puts these pups, these baby wolves into a mother's den with the other wolves that were born in the wild.

DEVOS: Right. That's correct. So, what we do is the pups will come to us from one of the zoos. We'll take them into the general area where pups are. Biologists have spent a great deal of time finding where mom's den is because she's cryptic. You know, she doesn't want everybody to know where she's at, but we cheat a little bit because we put radio collars on her. So she doesn't know we're monitoring her every move.

So we'll get the pups, they fly them in, we transport them by vehicle and then we hike them in. Mom will run off and then we'll have someone crawl into the den, bring out all the wild bourn pups, bring them out, lay them all together, the new pups, the, the wild pups, we kind of mingle them all together so that everybody kind of smells the same and then we put them back in the den.

We leave, mom comes back and I, I tell it this way, you know, mom walks in and she says, well, I thought I had four babies. I have seven. But what the heck, I'll just lay down and take care of everybody and that's exactly what she does. We've had a very high acceptance rate.

GILGER: That's kind of amazing. What if the mom came back early and found you guys in her den? I mean, would that be dangerous?

DEVOS: You know what we'll say no. Mom's gonna come back and see us there and she's gonna say I came back a little bit too early. She's gonna leave. She's not gonna come back to that den while we're there.

GILGER: OK. So the goal of this is to reintroduce Mexican gray wolves back kind of into the wild. They were almost decimated at one point. What is the status of this program you're announcing now that there have been a record number of pups fostered into New Mexico and Arizona? What does it look like this record?

DEVOS: This is the 25th year of the recovery program, and this year we hit a total of 257 wolves in the wild, at least that many. Now, we just did 27 pups this year bringing our total up to 100 and 26 and we've been able to put them into 48 different dens. The important being able to put them into different dens is the real challenge that we have for recovery is genetics.

You are right, the, the populations were decimated, they were gone in the U.S. And nearly so in Mexico, we were able to find a total of seven, which is the founding population, and that's all there is.

GILGER: So why does increasing the genetic diversity of the species matter here? Like how does that make a difference?

DEVOS: The more genetically different an animal is, the better they're able to adapt to changes in their environment. You've heard the term survival of the fittest? Well, survival of the fittest is really focused in on that genetic component. Now, as we can bring in pups from this zoo and put them with that wild den and then they'll go ahead and form packs of their own and breed.

We've got now, I really, I think a, a true success story is we have third-generation foster pups having litters of their own or in other words, we've got three different lines of fosters that are giving birth to litters in the wild. That's really a big deal.

GILGER: Hm. So this reintroduction program, as you know, has been controversial for a long time. It's been the subject of lawsuits. Ranchers have been very unhappy about this because they say wolves attack their livestock. On the other side, you have environmentalists have also sued over the program. They argue it violates the Endangered Species Act. I wonder what's your response to all of this criticism over the years? Like, do you think you're starting to prove this program can be successful.

DEVOS: So I think without question. You know what you think about the number that I said a minute ago, 257. In 1998 there were no wolves in the wild anywhere in the world that to me has got to be measured as a, as a success. You know, to me, the biggest answer that I can give you is is we're successful with this program. We're improving genetics. The numbers are absolutely amazing. We've increased 14% for the last 10 years. I don't know by any measure you could go, that would say this program isn't successful.

GILGER: Do you agree or understand the concerns of ranchers and livestock?

DEVOS: So I deal with the ranchers on almost a daily basis. And what I can tell you is that certainly the ranching community has concerns about the Mexican wolf, but there's a program called the Arizona Livestock Loss Board that was created by the Arizona legislature in 2015. They are providing financial compensation for any confirmed Mexican wolf depredation.

So at one point in time, you find your cow dead in the field, but you got no compensation for it. Now, we're able to provide compensation for that. That's not turned everyone around and there will always be some that don't want wolves and it's not just the ranching community. Some people that live in, some of these small Arizona towns have concerns about the presence for wolves but we work with the public. We work with the livestock community and the amount of opposition from the livestock community has diminished over the last five years, I think largely because of the livestock law board and the fact that Arizona Game and Fish people are working with the ranch community frequently.

I was in Cochise County two Saturdays ago, had a conference call with a person from Sierra County, New Mexico, yesterday. So being able to give the ranch community an opportunity to express their concerns and hear real-life answers that are accurate, I think is changing the dynamics of wolf recovery from the livestock community view.

GILGER: Let me ask you lastly, Jim about the ultimate goal here. Like when you look at reintroducing a predator, like the Mexican wolves back into the environment, what are the sort of broader balance of the species balance of the environment kind of goals?

DEVOS: So I think one has to consider the balance with every recovery program. And it could be a California Condor, it could be a Gila topminnow or it could be a Mexican wolf. There has to be a balance to where wolves have a place and where elk and deer have a place and where those that are working on the landscape have a place.

So try and strive to get a balance program that protects the wolves, keeps them at a balance that they're not doing damage to the food sources that they depend on, and simply making sure that we restore a key component of the natural diversity of the American Southwest.

GILGER: All right, we will leave it there for now, Jim deVos, Mexican Wolf coordinator for the Arizona Game and Fish Department joining us. Jim, thank you for coming on. I appreciate it.

DEVOS: You bet.

Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.
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