In February, an adult male from the Dark Canyon Pack, a Mexican gray wolf troop that roams through the west-central countryside of the Gila National Forest, was found dead.
It had stalked an expanse of federal land that borders Catron County, where livestock frequently become prey, with roughly three cows killed each month and regular reports of wolves lurking near chicken coops or alpaca herds. Some residents there condemn the wolves as destructive, expensive and dangerous beasts. And they have a right to shoot one if the animal is directly threatening their property or life.
But roughly every other month, a Mexican wolf is found dead or disappears without an explanation.
A new study published earlier this month suggests the untimely death of endangered wolves throughout America may more frequently be the result of illegal poaching than federal agencies and wildlife biologists realize or are reporting — and might be contributing to stalled recovery efforts for the species.
The Journal of Mammalogy published the peer-reviewed study, a joint effort by authors at University of Wisconsin-Madison, Earth2Ocean Research Group, the University of Victoria in Canada and Albuquerque-based Project Coyote.
The study found that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials who manage the Mexican wolf recovery program in New Mexico are underestimating the rate of poaching by up to 21 percent.
“It means that the government has been underestimating an illegal activity,” said Adrian Treves, a professor and researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the lead author on the study. Without accurate information about poaching, he said, “you don’t target your policy intervention or your management intervention accurately — the things you do to protect endangered species.”
Between 1998 and 2015, there were 155 deaths and disappearances in New Mexico and Arizona of radio-collared Mexican wolves. Of these wolves, 53 had “unknown fates.”
The wolves were first reintroduced in 1998.
John Oakleaf, a field projects coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Mexican Wolf Recovery Program, said most wolf deaths are caused by humans. But, he said, many human-caused deaths are from hunting errors, such as mistaking a wolf for a coyote, or from car accidents, rather than malicious acts.
“It doesn’t have to be malicious for humans to be the primary cause of death for animals,” Oakleaf said. “… Sometimes people are out there and maliciously do stuff, but you’d have to know the specifics of every single case to figure that out.”
Treves said his research came to a different conclusion.
The study found that agencies in four endangered wolf management areas have been measuring mortality in a way that has significantly underestimated the role of poaching, and these false estimates “have obscured the magnitude of poaching as the major threat to endangered wolf populations.”
Treves was researching radio-collared gray wolves in Wisconsin in 2011 when he realized that almost half of the monitored wolves had disappeared and that their fates had been determined “unknown” by management agencies there. After further analysis, his research determined that the wolves disappeared long before their collars would have malfunctioned and well before the average life expectancy for a wolf.
He posited that illegal poaching was contributing to these disappearances, and his studies were backed up by similar findings by researchers in Sweden and in the greater Yellowstone area.
“The assumption was that the collared animals go off the air or the collar breaks, but they live their lives just like any other radio-collared animal,” he said, “but it turns out that assumption is false. That means … the government and the agencies and the scientists are making a systematic error.”
The study examined the deaths of Northern Rocky Mountain gray wolves, Wisconsin gray wolves, red wolves on the East Coast and the Mexican gray wolf in New Mexico and Arizona.
The Mexican wolf program in New Mexico and Arizona was found to have the lowest rate of error of all the wolf management programs, Treves said, but all the endangered wolf programs were making some systematic errors.
Research found “that poaching is the major cause of death for all the endangered U.S. wolf populations we studied,” he said.
Federal officials said the endangered species, as a whole, are still seeing growth.
“You can strip away complex stuff like mortality and the causes of mortality and just focus on what the numbers are,” said Oakleaf, who has been with the Mexican wolf recovery program since 2002. “We have been successful in growing the numbers since 2009.”
Between 2015 and 2016, the Mexican wolf population in New Mexico and Arizona is believed to have grown from 97 to about 113, according to the latest federal survey.
That success of the Mexican wolf recovery program is partly because of cross-fostering efforts — releasing newborn pups bred in captivity into wild litters — a practice that began last year and has continued this spring. The state of New Mexico, which opposes the releases, has filed a federal lawsuit against the Fish and Wildlife Service in an attempt to stop the practice.
Six Mexican wolves have died of unknown causes in New Mexico in the past year, each incident spurring an investigation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Wildlife officials track wolves via monitoring collars. Each wolf is identified by a six-digit code. Their movements are watched to keep them from hunting livestock and to monitor their health and breeding activity.
Some animals go missing as a result of a collar failure or unrecorded death, Oakleaf said, adding that investigations into a wolf death can remain open for up to five years and still go unsolved.
He said the federal agency has been working with Catron Country, where the majority of wolf recovery efforts occur, since 1996 to educate and communicate with the community about the program. A number of residents are critical of wolf releases there and have called the Fish and Wildlife program poorly managed. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., is one of these critics and has advocated returning wolf management to the oversight of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish.
Oakleaf said the community’s objections to the program aren’t an indication that residents would illegally hunt wolves.
“People can argue the specifics of that without committing illegal acts,” he said.
Michael Robinson,a Silver City-based conservation advocate who focuses on wolf recovery for the Center for Biological Diversity, agreed with the new report’s findings.
“There is a lot of evidence that more wolves are dying from illegal causes than are reported by Fish and Wildlife services,” he said.
Robinson said he would like to see law enforcement efforts stepped up to stop the killings. He is also among advocates who want Fish and Wildlife to end a program that allows ranchers to track wolves that are being monitored. The program is intended to help protect livestock, but Robinson and others believe it also helps would-be poachers find wolves.
Robinson said Mexican wolf disappearances have been most common in the New Mexico’s Beaverhead range of wilderness, about 25 miles from where the Dark Canyon Pack wolf was found dead in February.
One such disappearance occurred in 2013, when a mating pair of Mexican wolves, whose den was in Beaverhead, went missing at the same time in early January. Robinson said the incident stuck in his memory because each member of the pair had a missing leg — one removed after a gunshot wound and the other from a trapping injury — but they still managed to survive in the wild for years.
Fish and Wildlife hunted for the pair for five months before pronouncing their fate unknown, saying their collars had likely stopped functioning.
“A lot of animals have gone missing there, but typically they are not counted as illegal mortalities. They are just disappeared wolves,” he said. “… Frankly, I’m worried.”