The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released its annual survey numbers for Mexican Gray Wolves in the Gila National Forest.
As of the end of December, there were 113 wolves living in the recovery area, which includes areas in both New Mexico and Arizona.
That’s an increase of 16 from the 2015 survey.
In a statement, the agency’s southwest regional director Benjamin Tuggle said the goal is to achieve an annual growth rate of 10 percent.
According to the survey, there are a total of 21 packs, with at least 50 wolves in New Mexico and 63 in Arizona. The count includes 50-wild born pups that survived through the year, compared to just 23 pups that survived in 2015.
“It’s encouraging to see the population is growing again,” says Michael Robinson with the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s still a very precarious number: 113 wolves distributed between New Mexico and Arizona is not very many.”
He added that the genetics of that wild population is still a cause for concern.
“In addition to population growth, we badly need new wolves released from captivity to diversify the gene pool,” he said.
In 2011, the Game Commission ended New Mexico’s participation in the program, and then voted to block the federal government from releasing any new captive-raised wolves in the state.
Legally, the federal agency could still release wolves, which it did.
But New Mexico sued, and last year a federal judge blocked any new releases.
In January, the Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit in Denver heard oral arguments on that case, which has become another battle between states and the federal government over the Endangered Species Act.
Meanwhile, Arizona has proposed cross-fostering pups instead of releasing more wolves into the wild.
That’s when biologists take captive-bred pups and insert them into the den of wild wolves with the hope they’ll be accepted.
Robinson said that’s a less-reliable way of trying to boost the population—and said he was disappointed that the federal government is choosing that option in deference to Arizona officials instead of using its legal authority to continue releasing wolves into the wild.
According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, six wolves were cross-fostered in 2016. Of those, three are still alive.
The federal agency is also currently seeking public comment on its release and translocation proposals for next year.
Update: The original version of this story said the 2016 numbers increased by 15 from 2015. It was actually 16.