GILA NATIONAL FOREST, N.M. — Something has gone awry -- some would say everything has -- in the federal government's effort to reestablish the population of Mexican wolves, North America's most endangered mammal.
Beginning with an initial release of 11 wolves in 1998, the Mexican wolf population in the Southwest was projected to reach at least 100 by 2006. Three years beyond, the number of wolves in the wild is half that.
Wildlife managers -- following the program's often punitive rules -- have contributed to the deaths of more than 25 wolves through shooting, trapping, sedating, penning and relocating the notoriously skittish animals.
A wolf slated for capture died of hyperthermia after a helicopter chase. At least eight wolves died of stress in holding pens. Six pups were killed when placed in the care of another captive pack. The program's most-photographed wolf -- Brunhilda, a young female in the first pack -- died after federal biologists captured her to perform a routine check; the animal became stressed and overheated during the examination and died.
On paper, Gila National Forest was the logical place to reintroduce the Mexican gray wolf. The 3.3 million acres of densely treed slopes, spare grasslands and desert scrub in the nation's first designated wilderness area are stocked with plentiful elk and deer that make up the bulk of wolves' diet.
But endangered-species biology plays out on a complicated landscape of emotion, politics and power -- never on paper.
Critics of the program, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials who designed it, say the Mexican wolf reintroduction has been a dismal failure, falling short of most of its goals. Pup survival rates are far lower than expected, adult wolf mortality higher than projected, and the recovery program is way behind the timeline that federal biologists established.
"We are witnessing the second extinction of the Mexican wolf in the wild," said Michael Robinson, a conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, one of several groups suing the federal government for "failing to recover" the wolf.
"It's the worst-case example abrogation of Endangered Species Act responsibility that I've seen, in many regards," said Jamie Clark, the former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and now executive vice president of the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife.
"Everybody knows what's wrong," she added. "Nobody will lead their way out. No one is taking responsibility."
Benjamin Tuggle, the Southwest regional director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Albuquerque, said there was much he disliked about the program he inherited.
"We've made some mistakes on our own," he said. "We've cost the lives of wolves. I don't want you to think that I am comfortable with where we are in handling these wolves, because I'm not.
"What I'm looking at, however, is a system that is not functioning at its optimum potential."
Gray wolves once roamed widely throughout the Southwest and Mexico, but decades of government extermination programs to support livestock interests rendered the species functionally extinct. The Mexican gray wolf was placed on the federal endangered species list in 1976.
By the 1990s, when the recovery program was conceived, there were fewer than 200 Mexican wolves remaining in North America, nearly all of them in zoos or research facilities. Trappers managed to capture seven wild wolves in Mexico, and those animals became the genetic forebears of the current population.
The first year of the reintroduction set the tone for a troubled program. The first wolf released was illegally shot and killed. Four more met the same fate. The first Mexican wolf pup born in the wild in more than 70 years was presumed dead after its mother was shot. By the end of the year, the Fish and Wildlife Service recaptured the rest of the released wolves and penned them for their own safety.
For a decade, the gray wolf program has limped along, undone, critics say, by measures that penalize the animals for behaving as wolves do.
For example, wolves that stray out of the designated recovery area along the New Mexico-Arizona border are captured, penned and relocated elsewhere in the recovery zone, where the animals then must relearn the geography and locate food and water sources. Ninety-three wayward wolves were "translocated" through 2008.
Perhaps the most controversial policy is the so-called three-strikes rule that was formalized in 2005, when the Fish and Wildlife Service allowed officials in Arizona and New Mexico to set wolf policies.
Under the rule, any wolf that has killed three cows or calves in one year must be "removed" -- shot or placed in captivity indefinitely. Wolves killed 22 cows and calves in 2007, according to Fish and Wildlife.
Policies such as these have created a revolving door that shuttles wolves from holding pens to the wild and back again, hampering adaptation, breeding and pack dynamics.