A voice interrupted the crackle of the radio at base camp: "Starting pursuit." The rest of the team on the ground at Gila National Forest in New Mexico was eager to hear those words after the low-flying helicopter crew had been working all morning to get close to one of the Mexican gray wolves targeted during an annual survey of the endangered predators. For months, crews combed the rugged mountains of the Southwest, tracking collared wolves and looking for evidence of new packs to form a picture of just how many wolves are roaming the wild in New Mexico and Arizona. The results were released Wednesday, the AP reports, revealing there are more wolves in the wild than at any time since federal wildlife managers initiated efforts to conserve the animals decades ago.
Since the first wolves were released in 1998, the program to re-establish the species across its historic range has dealt with illegal shootings, courtroom battles, and politics. The challenges are mounting as ranchers and rural residents say the situation has become untenable, as 2019 posted record livestock kills. At least 163 wolves were counted in the recent survey. That's a nearly 25% jump from the previous year and puts officials about halfway to the goal for declaring the species recovered. The population has increased an average of 15% annually over the past decade, a healthy pace. The count found 42 packs in the wild, and half of them had pups last spring. "You've got wild wolves raising those pups, teaching them to be wild rather than taking a captive adult that's used to people and not used to killing and feeding itself. When you put those adults out in the wild, they're the ones that tend to cause problems," said the recovery coordinator. "The last few years, we’ve shied away from doing the adult releases for that reason and working more with the pups."
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