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Local News

The Mexican Gray Wolf Population in Arizona

Credit: iStock

Armand Jackson

Near the end of May, 11 captive-born Mexican wolf pups were placed into wild dens across Arizona and New Mexico to be raised by surrogate parents in order to bring genetic diversity to the Mexican gray wolf population. The Mexican gray wolf is a subspecies of the gray wolf and is commonly referred to as “el lobo”  or “the wolf” in Spanish. According to the Defenders of Wildlife, a non-profit conservation organization, Mexican gray wolves are 60-80 pounds and stand 26-32 inches high with males typically heavier and taller than females. They can live up to 15 years in captivity, but only six to eight years in the wild. They are also social animals that live in packs and can have a litter size from four to seven pups. Their diet consists of mostly large mammals like elk, white-tailed deer and mule deer as well as smaller mammals like javelinas, rabbits, ground squirrels and mice.

Today they can only be found in southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico where they prefer mountain forests, grasslands and scrublands. Though their original population number is difficult to determine, according to the Endangered Species Coalition the wolves suffered habitat loss and population decline due to intensive human expansion into the American Southwest in the early 20th century. Increased settlement activities reduced natural prey population options for the Mexican gray wolves so they turned to domestic livestock for food. With livestock operations being threatened by wolves and misconceptions about their nature as a whole, humans in America started to cull the wolf population to near extinction.

Between the late 19th century and mid 20th century, federal government-sponsored wolf extermination programs employed various, often lethal, methods of extermination towards the wolf population. It was not until the late 1960s when these programs against wolves started to cease due to shifting scientific attitudes towards the species and gray wolves received protection as well as population recovery plans under the Endangered Species Act in 1973. As of 2021, the Mexican wolf population has a recorded minimum of 196 wolves with 112 wolves in New Mexico and 84 in Arizona. 

Today the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service through their Mexican Wolf Interagency Field Team and the Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan are trying to reverse the damage done to the Mexican gray wolves by humans throughout the last century and improve protections for them until their population increases to non-endangered numbers. One method they employ for this goal is cross-fostering, in which wolf pups are born in captivity at accredited breeding facilities across the United States and when the pups are 14 days old or younger, they are placed into a den of wild Mexican wolves with pups of the same age. Then, while monitored, the surrogate wild wolf parents raise the new pups as if they were a part of the original litter.