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Updated Feb 6, 2013 - 4:27 pm

Wolf numbers up in Arizona, New Mexico

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Hated by ranchers and revered by environmentalists as a symbol of the American Southwest's wildness, the Mexican gray wolf has struggled over the past 15 years to find a foothold in the forests of Arizona and New Mexico.

But federal wildlife officials announced Wednesday that the predator has made its biggest stride yet. Annual survey results show there are at least 75 wolves in the wild in Arizona and New Mexico, the most since the federal government began efforts to return the wolves to their historic range in 1998.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regional director Benjamin Tuggle attributed the boost in population to management efforts aimed at reducing conflicts between the wolves and ranchers and other rural residents.

Over the years, the number of wolves has gone up and down, and Tuggle acknowledged that more work needs to be done to tackle the persistent challenges that have prevented the program from being more successful.

``We recognize the largest threats to the populations that we have on the landscape continue to be genetic diversity and illegal mortality,'' he said.

The plan this year, he said, is prevent more wolf shootings and to infuse more genetic diversity into the population. That could mean more releases of captive-bred wolves into the wild.

The estimates released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are based on ground and aerial surveys done in recent weeks. There are at least 38 wolves in New Mexico and 37 in Arizona. Last year, the estimate stood at 58 for the two states.

The survey also indicated there were three breeding pairs among the 13 packs that were identified. There were twice as many breeding pairs last year, but officials noted that 20 pups were born in 2012 and survived through the end of the year, marking the 11th consecutive year in which wild-born wolves bred and raised pups in the wild.

Larry Voyles, director of the Arizona Game and Fish Department, said one of the keys to success is increasing the percentage of the population that's born in the wild. Now, all but one of the wolves on the ground in New Mexico and Arizona were born in the wild.

Environmentalists argued that building a sustainable population isn't likely when there are so few breeding pairs. They said Mexican wolves are facing a ``genetic crisis.''

The Mexican wolf, a subspecies of the gray wolf, once roamed New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and Mexico. Hunting and government-sponsored extermination campaigns all but wiped out the predator. It was added to the federal endangered species list in 1976.

Returning the wolves to the wild has been hampered by everything from politics to illegal killings. Disputes over management of the program also have spurred numerous legal actions by environmentalists who have been pushing for more wolves to be released and ranchers who are concerned about their livelihoods and safety in rural communities.

The new population estimates come as federal officials attempt to revamp a decades-old plan that guides wolf management. A draft proposal calls for establishing rules for wolves that migrate into other parts of Arizona and New Mexico and into West Texas.

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Follow Susan Montoya Bryan on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/susanmbryanNM

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