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11 Wolves Freed in Arizona Stay Close to Pens

Wildlife: Experts say the animals are acting as expected. Release has pleased environmentalists but angered ranchers.

April 02, 1998|FRANK CLIFFORD | TIMES ENVIRONMENTAL WRITER

They are still sticking close to their pens, but wolves are running wild again in eastern Arizona--much to the delight of environmentalists and the consternation of ranchers who are suing to halt the federal wolf reintroduction project.

On Sunday, 11 captive-bred Mexican wolves were released from pens in the Blue Range of eastern Arizona into a designated recovery area of about 7,000 acres on both sides of the Arizona-New Mexico border.

As of Wednesday afternoon, according to the team of government biologists monitoring the radio-collared wolves, none had wandered more than two miles from the large holding pens where the animals were held for two months before the release.

"They're doing just what we hoped they would do in the beginning," said Wendy Brown, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a member of the monitoring team.

"The less they roam at first, the more likely they are to stay in their family groups and less likely to get into trouble."

Mexican wolves, among the rarest land mammals in North America, are a subspecies of the gray wolf. There are fewer than 200 left, virtually all of them in captivity.

The release area is twice the size of Yellowstone National Park, the site of the federal government's 1995 gray wolf reintroduction project. But the Mexican wolves share the mountains and canyons of eastern Arizona and western New Mexico with thousands of head of domestic livestock.

It is a region where ranchers already contend with bears and mountain lions, and the prospect of another meat-eating species preying on calves and lambs does not sit well with them.

Last Friday, the New Mexico Cattle Growers Assn. filed suit in U.S. District Court in Las Cruces, N.M., arguing that the wildlife service violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to adequately analyze the impact that wolf reintroduction would have on the local livestock industry.

The suit also claims that the animals are hybrids, part dog or coyote, and therefore undeserving of protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Livestock associations have also challenged the legality of the wolf release program in Yellowstone.

Federal wildlife officials say they spent eight years evaluating the potential effects of the release, and government biologists insist that the wolves are the descendants of Mexican wolves that inhabited the region until a government-sponsored program of poisoning and trapping drove them to extinction in the wilds in the 1950s.

As it has with the Yellowstone program, the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife has pledged to reimburse ranchers for livestock killed by wolves. The organization has paid about $65,000 to livestock owners in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho over the past decade.

"The government's preparation for this release has been the longest and most painstaking in the history of the National Environmental Policy Act," said Craig Miller of Defenders of Wildlife.

"The claims being made in the lawsuit are groundless and ludicrous," he said.

The 11 wolves just released were part of three family groups reared at the Sevilleta captive breeding program 60 miles south of Albuquerque and about 200 miles from the wolves' new range.

The animals were set free in the spring, during their mating season, in the hope that they would occupy themselves looking for dens for newborns as opposed to straying near livestock or trying to make their way back to Sevilleta.

Although the release area was chosen in part because of an abundance of wild prey, government officials said, the monitoring team is furnishing dietary supplements--mostly road-killed deer and elk--until the wolves learn how to hunt like their ancestors.

But even with their food delivered to them, it took some of the wolves a while to regain their appetites after they were trucked to their pens in late January.

"Relocation can be a traumatic experience for wolves as well as humans," said Dave Parsons, another member of the wolf monitoring team. "But they seem to be doing great now."

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