There are now more Mexican gray wolves roaming the American Southwest than at any time since the federal government began trying to reintroduce the predators nearly two decades ago.The annual survey released Friday by the US Fish and Wildlife Service shows at least 113 wolves are spread between southwestern New Mexico and southeast Arizona, marking an improvement over the 97 wolves that were documented the previous year. "We are encouraged by these numbers. But these 2016 results demonstrate we are still not out of the woods," Fish and Wildlife Service regional director Benjamin Tuggle said in a statement. More work needs to be done to ensure the population grows by about 10% each year, Tuggle said.
The survey comes as the agency gathers comments on plans to release two packs of Mexican gray wolves in wilderness areas near the Arizona-New Mexico border this year in an effort to bolster a struggling population threatened by inbreeding, the AP reports. The Fish and Wildlife Service released details this week of its latest plan, saying it will submit the public comments along with a request to the state of New Mexico for a permit to release the animals. Federal officials say the releases are an important tool for avoiding a genetic bottleneck. Of the 70 or so Mexican wolves in the wild for which individual genetics are known, all but four males are descendants of the Bluestem Pack's breeding female. (Read more wolves stories.)