The southwestern U.S. population of endangered Mexican gray wolves declined by 12 percent last year after five years of steady growth, leading wildlife advocates to suggest that illegal killings of the beleaguered predators may be to blame.

Wildlife managers said Thursday the drop — from 110 wolves in 2014 to 97 last year — was unexpected and disturbing but that federal and state governments should stick with their decades-long recovery efforts for the animal.

The tally did not include an estimated 20 more Mexican wolves roaming south of the U.S. border.