LAS CRUCES — The Mexican gray wolf recovery effort, started in early 1998 with the release of a handful in southwest Arizona, has been hobbled by illegal poaching and the aggressive removal of lobos from the wild for killing cattle, but the program could undergo some major changes in the next two years.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated there were 59 wolves within a recovery zone in the forests of southeast Arizona and southwest New Mexico at the end of 2006, and at the end of 2011, the number was 58. Biologists had expected that by 2006 the population would reach 100.
Fish and Wildlife is developing a long-awaited recovery plan, to be released for public comment in 2013, that could dramatically alter the rules that the project operates under. Under consideration are proposals to allow the release of captive-bred wolves directly into New Mexico, rather than limiting such releases to Arizona alone as is the case now, and to establish populations in other parts of the Southwest.
In addition, the agency could soon change the designation of the wolf under the Endangered Species Act so that lobos could disperse outside the recovery zone.
Under pressure from conservation organizations concerned about the number of wolves removed from the wild for killing cattle — 35 lobos in 2006 and 2007 alone — federal officials effectively halted such removals in 2008. One wolf was ordered removed in early August, but she has so far eluded capture.
Beginning in 2008, during the four-year period when wolf removals halted, illegal shootings spiked, with at least 18 wolves gunned down compared with six in the preceding four years.