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Howls of protest greet Mexican wolf reintroduction

New Mexico program faces higher hurdles than similar one in Yellowstone.

By Moises Velasquez-ManoffStaff Writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 22, 2008

A Mexican gray wolf paces in enclosure at Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, N.M.

Moises Velasquez-Manoff

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Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, N.M.

On a cold, wind-whipped November morning, about 90 minutes south of Albuquerque, N.M., a line of people faces off against a pack of wolves. They clutch poles, nets, and lassos, props not necessarily meant for use, but to make them look bigger. A US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) official tells them not to worry, there’s little danger. But if a wolf tries to break the line, don’t go sticking out a limb.

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Most of these wolves, an endangered Southwestern subspecies, were born and bred in captivity. They’re the fruit of a 25-year-old plan by the FWS to reestablish the Mexican wolf in the wild.

The captive wolves live between two hills on the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, their enclosures largely isolated from human sights, sounds, and smells as a rewilding exercise. They can’t be habituated to a human presence; without sufficient fear of people, they won’t last long in the wild. Indeed, only the most fearful will be released at all.

The animals’ alarm has been evident since the first truck came into sight up the dirt road. They lope tirelessly around the well-worn trails that line the perimeters of their enclosures. They occasionally leap up against the 12-foot-high chain link fences. Innate fear is partly responsible, explains Maggie Dwire, an assistant coordinator with the FWS’s Mexican Wolf Recovery Program. But wolves also anticipate – and presumably dread – the chase, muzzling, poking, and prodding that often accompany human visits. “That’s fine with me,” she says.

On command, the line moves forward. No wolf sedatives will be administered today. But too much frenzy, and the wolves might simply drop dead in what wildlife experts call “capture myo­pathy.” Today’s exercise is for the wolves’ own good, but the scene – a row of tool-wielding homo sapiens moving steadily toward increasingly frantic wolves – evokes the long and complicated history between the two species. Some Native American groups viewed wolves as equals of a sort, a social animal that also hunted cooperatively.

But as Europeans colonized North America with livestock in tow, wolves were systematically poisoned and hunted off the land. For much of the past century, the FWS, now charged with bringing the wolf back, headed that extermination.

The Southwestern wolf-reintroduction program has been less successful than reintroduction programs in the northern Rockies. Different socioeconomic realities and a different landscape have complicated the Mexican wolf’s comeback. Some ranchers near the recovery area, a 6,745-square-mile swath straddling the New Mexico-Arizona border, say wolves have no place there. Conservationists counter that the recovery area, 95 percent national forest, is public land and should be wild, predators included. They cite the Endangered Species Act (ESA) – the Mexican wolf is the most endangered of five subspecies in the US – and they point to evidence that top predators enhance ecosystem health.

Each camp accuses FWS of favoring the other. Conservationists say FWS has caved to ranching interests and failed in its mandate to recover the wolf. Ranchers charge it with destroying their way of life.

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