But rather than move forward, the Fish and Wildlife Service continues to fall further behind. In early November, it removed the alpha male from the most genetically valuable pack on the ground. That pack - the Aspen pack - has been responsible for at least eight confirmed cattle and domestic animal kills since January, most on the Adobe-Slash ranch. In early December, the agency captured and permanently removed the Aspen pack's alpha female and a yearling female as well as three pups. (The pups may be re-released sometime in the future.)

"They are breaking up the most successful pack with the best genetic composition," says Parsons, the former recovery coordinator.

The diminishing outlook for the Mexican gray wolf has caused an uproar among wildlife scientists, who say the Fish and Wildlife Service needs to revise its management rules to emphasize protecting the wolves ahead of livestock interests. The American Society of Mammalogists passed a resolution last June calling for the agency to "suspend all predator control directed at Mexican gray wolves at least until the interim 100-wolf goal of the current reintroduction program has been achieved."

Environmentalists also want the rules changed to allow wolves to roam without arbitrary boundary restrictions. Wolves that stray outside the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area are trapped and either permanently removed from the wild or relocated within the recovery zone. More wolves are trapped for leaving the recovery area than for any other reason. Trapping stray wolves increases human contact with the wolves and drives up the cost of the program.

"It is the only terrestrial mammal managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service that is supposed to stay within political boundaries," says Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity.

In addition, environmentalists want ranchers to remove the carcasses of the thousands of cattle that die each year from non-wolf-related causes, rather than simply let them rot on the land. Robinson, Parsons and other wildlife biologists believe the wolves that scavenge those carcasses may develop an attraction for beef, although the New Mexico Game and Fish Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service disagree.

Perhaps most of all, environmentalists want the direct release of captive wolves into New Mexico.