ALBUQUERQUE Another year has passed, and the effort to return the endangered Mexican gray wolf to the Southwest is no closer to marking success than when federal wildlife officials first set out with their lofty goals decades ago.
But this year is going to be different. Its going to be what U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southwest director Benjamin Tuggle calls a watershed year, and at the top of his list is bringing together scientists, conservationists, ranchers and others to develop a much-needed road map for the wolfs recovery.
We have battled this demon a very long time, and finally, weve gotten the go-ahead in a number of ways. It is my firm belief that were going to make some significant progress, Tuggle said in an interview.
The effort to return the wolves to the wild in New Mexico and Arizona has been hampered by illegal shootings, court battles, complaints from ranchers who have lost livestock and pets to the wolves, and concerns by environmentalists about the way the reintroduction program has been managed.
In 2010, there were six wolf deaths. All but one involved suspicious circumstances.
A few New Mexico lawmakers pushed unsuccessfully to get state game officials to help reduce conflicts between wolves and livestock, and a dozen congressional lawmakers requested that federal officials make changes in the program and consider releasing more wolves into the wild.
The goal this year, Tuggle said, will be finding balance between science and the impact of management actions on people. That balance has eluded the program since the federal government began releasing Mexican wolves along the Arizona-New Mexico border in 1998.
The Mexican gray wolf once roamed New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and Mexico. As more people began to settle in the Southwest, conflict arose between the wolves, people and livestock. Hunting and government-sponsored extermination campaigns all but wiped out the wolf.
The wolf was added to the federal endangered species list in 1976 and a captive-breeding program was started. A recovery plan was adopted in 1982, and the first 11 wolves were released in March 1998.
Biologists had hoped to have more than 100 wolves in the wild by 2006. At the beginning of 2010, the count was 42.