New Mexico may change wolf policy

by Zachary Smith

A troubled wolf-recovery effort in the Southwest may have found an unlikely ally: The traditionally anti-wolf New Mexico Game Commission has asked the state Game and Fish Department to re-evaluate its management of Mexican wolves, which were first reintroduced in neighboring Arizona in 1998.

Past commissions, dominated by ranching interests, have prevented the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from releasing captive wolves in New Mexico. The agency must first release captive wolves into Arizona's Apache National Forest. The wolves may then wander into New Mexico's adjacent Gila national Forest, and wolves captured in Arizona can be released into the Gila. But even well-behaved wolves found outside recovery areas in New Mexico are removed and relocated.

Environmentalists argue that these rules have sabotaged the recovery process, preventing wolves from establishing healthy territories and populations.

Now, the commission wants Game and Fish to consider allowing the direct release of captive wolves in New Mexico, and to study the possibility of increasing the wolf's recovery area. The seven-member commission, appointed by Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson, now includes two environmentalists.

The Fish and Wildlife Service, Game and Fish Department, and environmentalists agree that the commission's new direction is promising. Chuck Hayes of Game and Fish believes it's a big step toward the project's goal of restoring 100 wolves in the region. "People have gotten away from the 'get rid of wolves' idea," he says. "Wolves are here (and) we need to manage them as well as possible."

Biologists estimate that there are now 52 to 57 Mexican wolves in New Mexico and Arizona, although environmentalists believe that number is inflated. Local attitudes, however, may not have changed: Of 13 wolves killed last year, six were shot illegally.

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