The government of Mexico is planning to reintroduce five endangered Mexican gray wolves in northeastern Sonora - within a wolf's walking distance of Arizona.
The reintroduction, scheduled to occur as early as this month, has forced U.S. state and federal agencies to scramble. Their problem is to figure out what to do if a wolf wanders north into the United States.
So far, their answer isn't pleasing ranchers: They'll treat any wolves from Mexico as fully endangered and therefore largely untouchable.
"For one (wolf) to go 80 miles in one week is nothing," said Laura Schneberger of the Gila Livestock Growers Association in New Mexico. "Once they're managed as fully endangered species, you won't be able to remove them for any reason."
She called Mexico's plan, made in concert with some U.S. and allied Mexican environmental groups, an "end around" to bring wolves into the U.S. from the south.
That possible result sounds like a good thing to some environmentalists from Arizona and New Mexico. They view the troubled wolf reintroduction straddling those U.S. states, in a place called the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area, as weakened by rules that allow easy removals of wolves.
"We do eventually want connectivity between the Blue Range wolves and wolves in Mexico," said Michael Robinson of the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity.
The Mexican government has withheld many details of its planned release, including the timing, but officials said in an e-mail to the Star Friday that it will take place in the Sierra San Luis. That mountain range in northeastern Sonora starts about 25 miles south of the point where the Arizona, New Mexico and Sonora borders meet and stretches south for another 60 or so miles.
Mexico's planned reintroduction has prompted a familiar debate among agencies, groups and individuals involved in the longstanding debates over managing for jaguars and wolves in Arizona. The difference: They have limited influence over Mexico's eventual decision.
Mexican officials and conservationists have long planned to reintroduce Mexican gray wolves to their landscape. The last known wild wolves were trapped by American Roy McBride in Mexico during the 1970s as part of an effort to save the subspecies of gray wolves. A captive breeding program was established, and now more than 300 wolves live in 40 U.S. and Mexican facilities.
After decades of discussion about releases, Mexico's plan accelerated this year after Mexican President Felipe Calderón named the wolf one of five priority species for reintroduction before 2012.
"There is significant political pressure (in Mexico) to get wolves on the ground," said Arizona Game and Fish's endangered species coordinator, Terry Johnson, at an August commission meeting. "It's no different than the political pressures in the United States. … At some point, people run out of patience."
The immediacy of Mexico's plan came into sharp focus for U.S. agencies in July, when Mexican officials said they planned to release wolves in a spot about 30 miles south of the border in October or November. That word set off alarm bells for the Americans because of its proximity to the border, but the release date has been pushed back since then, most recently to this month.
The release site apparently has been pushed farther south, said Buddy Fazio, a Fish and Wildlife Service employee who directs the Blue Range reintroduction program. He has heard the distance is about 100 miles south of the border, but wherever the site is within the Sierra San Luis, newly released wolves could make it into the United States.
That in itself wouldn't be a problem, Fazio said.
"If they're just passing through, that's OK. But if they become an issue for people in some way, that's when we'd need to step in and manage in some way," he said.
The most common issue people have cited in the Blue Range area is wolves attacking cattle. Judy Keeler, a rancher who leads a Hidalgo County livestock group in New Mexico's bootheel, said she's concerned that wolves will show up from the south and start eating cattle, but there will be no mechanism for removing wolves or otherwise handling the problem.
Said Schneberger: "It (a wolf) can walk through downtown Deming, and nobody will be able to touch it. It's not a good thing to list a predator as fully endangered."
The Fish and Wildlife Service is working on an environmental assessment that could give the service some tools for managing wolves that cross from the south, but that will likely take months.
"3 strikes" rule is gone
If wolves make it from Mexico into the United States, they'll be entering a complex geography of wolf controls.
The Blue Range wolves were introduced in 1998 as "experimental, nonessential" animals. They're largely prohibited from leaving the confines of the Blue Range area in New Mexico and Arizona. If seen outside the Blue Range, and between an area bordered by Interstate 40 to the north and Interstate 10 to the south, they are to be returned to the Blue Range.
They also have been subject to rules such as a "three strikes and you're out" standard under which wolves will be removed from the project area if they eat cattle three times. That rule was eliminated in November.
"Those exemptions have allowed Fish and Wildlife Service to order the removal of dozens of wolves," said Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity.
But some officials see hope in a new population, one they don't oversee, appearing nearby.
"There's still that undercurrent in some parts of our population that we don't need wolves anymore," said Bob Hernbrode, an Arizona Game and Fish commissioner from Tucson. "I stand in support of Mexico transplanting wolves if they do it close enough to have a financial and biological impact on the United States."
During a teleconference Friday to announce disappointing declines in the Blue Range wolf population, Benjamin Tuggle, regional director of the Fish and Wildliife Service, expressed support for "anything that's going to supplement the population on the ground."
"The more wolves that are on the landscape, the more they're going to act like wolves," he said.
Wolves' return hasn't been easy
• Mexico and the United States began the effort to save the Mexican gray wolf together in the 1970s, but the U.S. got a much quicker start on reintroduction efforts - for better or worse.
• The United States released 11 animals from the endangered gray wolf subspecies into the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area, in Eastern Arizona and western New Mexico, in 1998. The goal was that natural reproduction and reintroduction would bring the population to 100 in a few years. The first wild pups were born in 2002, but continuing difficulties have meant that the wolves have struggled to maintain their population.
• Officials removed wolves because they ate cattle and for other reasons. They moved wolves into, out of and within the range. Ranchers and others grew frustrated with the animals, while many environmentalist asked that they simply be left alone.
• On Friday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that its annual wolf census found 42 animals on the ground at the end of 2009, compared to 52 at the end of 2008. It was the lowest number in seven years.
• Perhaps just as worrisome for the wolf project, at least two of eight wolves whose carcasses were found last year had been shot, meaning apparent poaching of the wolves, a problem for years, continues. Federal officials are investigating the shootings as possible crimes.
• State and federal governments have spent about $20.4 million on the project since 1991.
• Benjamin Tuggle, the regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, promised Friday to intensify efforts to have more wolves living in Eastern Arizona and western New Mexico.
Star reporter Tony Davis contributed to this report. Contact reporter Tim Steller at 807-8427 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.