Mexico Planning To Release Wolves
LAS CRUCES — The last wild-roaming endangered Mexican gray wolves call U.S. forests in southern New Mexico and Arizona home, but soon they will have some company south of the Mexican border.
Mexican federal biologists told U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials at a July meeting in Albuquerque that they plan to release a four-member pack of wolves in a sweeping area south of the New Mexico-Arizona border in October or November, with a second release of wolves targeted for December. More wolves could be released in the same area in the Mexican state of Sonora in the spring of 2010, said Brian Millsap, deputy director for the Fish and Wildlife Service's Southwest region.
While federal officials and an environmentalist called the Mexican effort good news for the wolf recovery project, the plan has raised concerns among ranchers. And it has posed a potentially vexing question: How will federal officials treat wolves if they roam from Mexico into the U.S. and remain outside the designated recovery area?
"There's just total uncertainty around this," said Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association. "We've talked about concerns about the U.S. government releasing wolves on citizens. Now we have a foreign government releasing a predator on U.S. citizens."
Millsap said the chance that wolves would migrate from their release zone in Mexico to the U.S. is "probably a long shot."
"Because of suitability of habitat, it's more likely that wolves would travel south and east, if at all, than move north," Millsap said.
The northern edge of the Mexican region in which wolves are planned to be released is about 50 miles south of the U.S. border, officials said. The Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area, a 4 million acre stretch of forest in southeast Arizona and southwest New Mexico, is about 50 miles north of the Mexican border.
Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity said that if wolves released in Mexico migrate north and cross the border into an area not designated for wolf recovery, namely south of I-10, they should receive full protection under the Endangered Species Act. That means those wolves would not be subject to federal rules governing wolves managed by U.S. authorities, such as one that calls for the removal of wolves that prey on livestock three times in one year.
Millsap said the Fish and Wildlife Service is seeking advice from its attorneys on how to treat wolves that might migrate from Mexico. "That's the question we don't have an answer to yet," Millsap said.
Robinson said he was "delighted" by Mexico's plan. "It's important that different populations of wolves be able to connect with each other for genetic diversity," he said.
Bud Fazio, FWS's Mexican gray wolf recovery coordinator, called Mexico's plan a "positive step" in the effort to expand the wild lobo population, which numbered 52 at the end of 2008.
When the U.S. reintroduction effort was launched in 1998, biologists projected there would be 102 wolves in the wild by the end of 2006. Critics say the population's growth has been hampered by illegal poaching and aggressive federal management practices.
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