ALBUQUERQUE — Federal wildlife managers want to release two packs of Mexican gray wolves in wilderness areas near the Arizona-New Mexico border this year in an effort to bolster a struggling population threatened by inbreeding.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released details this week of its latest plan, saying it will submit public comments currently being gathered along with a request to the state of New Mexico for a permit to release the animals.
It will ultimately be up to New Mexico and a federal court whether the releases happen since the state and the agency are locked in a legal battle over the endangered predator, marking just the latest skirmish in a broader fight over states’ rights and the Endangered Species Act.
In a case before a federal appeals court, New Mexico and 18 other states argue that the law requires the Fish and Wildlife Service to cooperate with them on how endangered species are reintroduced within their borders. Federal attorneys contend the law allows the agency to go around a state, if necessary, to save a species.
The court has yet to make a ruling, and until then releases in New Mexico are prohibited.
New Mexico contends there’s no way to determine whether the proposed releases would conflict with the state’s own wildlife management because federal officials have yet to develop a comprehensive recovery plan for the wolves.
The agency is under a court order to release a draft plan later this year.
Federal officials said this week that the releases are an important tool for avoiding a genetic bottleneck since most of the wolves in the wild are related.
Of the 70 or so Mexican wolves in the wild for which individual genetics are known, data shows all but four males are descendants of the Bluestem Pack’s breeding female.
Without releases of wolves from the more genetically diverse captive population, “there is very little potential for natural pair formation among unrelated wolves in the wild now or in the future,” wolf managers stated.
Their plan also calls for more cross-fostering of pups, which involves placing captive-bred pups in the dens of wild wolves with the intention that the pack’s adults would raise them as their own.
Last year marked the first successful cross-fostering attempt with a litter in New Mexico.
Only about 100 Mexican gray wolves live in the wild. They nearly disappeared in the 1970s, and the federal government added them to the endangered species list in 1976.
The results of an annual survey done over the winter are expected to be released soon. Federal officials have been under pressure over the last year since the previous survey marked the first dip in the wolf population in four years.
The Fish and Wildlife Service began reintroducing the wolves in New Mexico and Arizona starting in 1998, but the effort has been hampered by everything from politics and lawsuits to illegal killings and genetics. The agency has been criticized for its management of the predators by both ranchers, who say the animals are a threat to their livelihoods, and environmentalists who want more captive-bred wolves to be released.