The effort to restore Mexican gray wolves to the Southwest started later and smaller than the restoration of wolves to the Northern Rockies, and it has run into stiffer local resistance.
But "we're on track," says Colleen Buchanan, assistant Mexican wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "We remain quite hopeful."
"They're just trying to put a happy face on things," counters Michael Robinson, who tracks the effort for the Center for Biological Diversity from his base in Silver City, N.M.
The main difference between the Northern Rockies and the Southwest is the wolves. The Mexican wolves (not a different species, merely a variety of gray wolf) reintroduced to Arizona and New Mexico are all produced by a captive breeding program. They've never taken wild prey until they're released to the wild.
"They're naive," Buchanan says. "They don't hit the ground running."
Mexican gray wolves had been wiped out in the U.S. by the time they were protected with their own slot on the Endangered Species list in 1976. The feds had to hire a trapper to collect five in Mexico to begin the breeding program. Due to political wrangling, the reintroduction effort didn't begin until 1998, and it immediately ran into trouble. Thirteen wolves were released that year, but one of the alpha females was shot and another disappeared.
Only three of those bred successfully, so four more from zoos or animal parks were included to broaden the genetic lines.
Descended from the original seven, today there are about 200 Mexican wolves in 43 captive breeding facilities around the U.S. and Mexico.
In all, 65 Mexican wolves have been released. Among those, there have been 26 verified deaths: 10 shot; four hit by vehicles; one killed by a mountain lion; one, bitten by a rattlesnake, choked to death on its collar as its neck swelled; and the rest dead from diseases, dehydration or complications from handling.
Today, roughly 30 to 35 survive in the wild in seven packs. Only a few are in New Mexico, because the local opposition is stiffest there, and the feds agreed to more restrictions on how wolves are released there.
The "recovery area" defined by the feds is basically the Apache National Forest in southeast Arizona and the Gila National Forest in southwest New Mexico - a total of about 7,000 square miles with ample wilderness and prey.
Ranchers in southwest New Mexico, including Catron County, have been among the most determined nationwide to resist anything federal. Reflecting that stance, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish still officially opposes the wolf recovery (though the department does quietly dedicate a staffer to the wolves).
In Arizona, the politics are more mixed. Recently the White Mountain Apache tribe has taken a leadership role. A male wolf and a female wolf have staked out territory on the 1.6-million acre reservation, and "we're hoping for pups this year," says Cynthia Dale, the tribe's sensitive species coordinator.
The tribe has written a wolf management plan, hired a wolf biologist, and, in March, secured $500,000 in federal funding to help support the next five years of tribal wolf management. "There's a lot less conflict here than on U.S. Forest Service land," says Dale.
Another problem is that to appease the opposition, the USFWS decided at the beginning to allow the wolves in the Southwest to roam only within the official recovery area. When wolves roam outside the boundaries, they're recaptured and hauled back.
"We made a mistake by putting that line on a map," admits Brian Kelly, who runs the Southwest effort. But Kelly says the rancher opposition and the restrictions seem minor next to the challenges the wolves face adapting to the wild. Compared to efforts to reintroduce captive-bred red wolves in North Carolina and captive-bred swift foxes in Canada, "we're doing better," he says.
The Mexican wolves are used to being fed by people, but in the wild most "have definitely shown they can make the transition," says Colleen Buchanan. The ones that survive "are elusive, they're taking down prey, behaving exactly as a wild wolf would."