ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Federal wildlife managers have been working to return the endangered Mexican gray wolf to the American Southwest for the past 15 years. Every now and then, there’s a genetic hiccup.
It happens when a wolf breeds with a domestic dog and produces a litter of hybridized pups.
Just last month, an animal that looked like a wolf was spotted in the mountain community of Reserve near the Arizona-New Mexico border. Experts with the wolf management team determined that the uncollared animal was most likely a wolf-dog hybrid.
While it doesn’t happen often, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Tom Buckley said Tuesday that hybridization is a concern.
“The bottom line is it’s not a good thing, and we try not to allow that to happen,” he said.
Any mixing of wolves with dogs has the potential to throw a wrench in the federal government’s efforts to reintroduce Mexican gray wolves to Arizona and New Mexico. Having a genetically diverse — yet pure — population has been identified as one of the keys to making the effort a success, and biologists have gone to great lengths over the years to pair genetically valuable wolves and to collect semen and eggs from some of the predators for captive breeding and research.
When hybrid wolves are found in the wild, they are removed to protect the genetic pool. For example, wildlife managers in 2011 had to euthanize four wolf-dog pups that belonged to a female wolf that had initially been released into the Gila National Forest with hopes of being a mate for another lone wolf.
Genetics are already a touchy subject when it comes to Mexican wolves. Without a diverse pool of genes, wolf packs become susceptible to inbreeding and that could lead to smaller litters and more pup deaths.
Environmentalists say there’s a “genetic crisis” within the wild Mexican wolf population and have been pushing the Fish and Wildlife Service to release some of the nearly 260 wolves that are currently in captivity.
“The fact that there are hybrid animals indicates that the wolves are not finding each other and that there are not enough animals on the ground,” said Wendy Keefover of the group WildEarth Guardians.
Federal officials argued that releasing more captive wolves won’t solve the problem. They are focusing specifically on those wolves that can diversify the genetic pool.
The Mexican gray wolf population stems from seven wolves that were trapped in Mexico in the late 1970s as part of the effort to save the species through captive breeding. The federal government released the first captive-bred wolves into the wild in 1998. Now, all but one of the wolves on the ground in New Mexico and Arizona are wild-born.
The most recent population count completed at the beginning of the year found at least 75 wolves in the wild. Out of the 13 packs identified, there were only a few breeding pairs.
(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)