Wolf pack survival in jeopardy

ALBUQUERQUE – Two 6-month-old Mexican gray wolf pups are navigating southwestern New Mexico’s Gila forest on their own now that their troubled pack has splintered, worrying environmentalists who think the animals’ chances of survival are slim.

This week’s efforts to track the Fox Mountain pack show the pups are miles apart and far from the pack’s alpha male. Environmentalists blame federal wildlife managers, who ordered the pack’s alpha female – the pups’ mother – captured and removed from the wild in response to a string of cattle kills.

The fate of the pack is fueling the latest wave of frustration over the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s handling of the 14-year effort to reintroduce wolves to the American Southwest. The frustration has taken the form of online petitions, public-records requests and now a lawsuit.

WildEarth Guardians, a Santa Fe-based environmental group, announced Wednesday that it was asking a federal court to force the Fish and Wildlife Service to release documents related to management of the Fox Mountain pack. Another public records request filed by the Center for Biological Diversity has gone unanswered. A third has netted hundreds of pages of blacked-out documents, raising questions about decision-making within the wolf program.

Fish and Wildlife Service regional spokeswoman Charna Lefton said Wednesday she could not comment on the pending litigation.

Wendy Keefover, director of WildEarth Guardians’ carnivore-protection program, questioned the veracity of the evidence used by wildlife managers to link the alpha female to the cattle kills.

“We have yet to see proof that the loba actually killed livestock, and none appears to be forthcoming,” she said, adding that the female wolf should be reunited with the pack.

The pack has been blamed for six cattle deaths, including four that happened outside the wolf recovery boundaries within a four-month period.

Ranchers have long voiced their opposition to wolf reintroduction, pointing to economic losses as well as safety issues for rural residents. Gov. Susana Martinez even asked the Fish and Wildlife Service to capture and relocate the entire Fox Mountain pack.

Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity said no livestock killings had been reported in the pack’s territory for months leading up to the alpha female’s capture. He said the wolf’s removal was unnecessary and now the pups could end up starving.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has treated the removal of this animal as just removing a piece from a chess board,” Robinson said. “What we see again is that these are social animals and that the remainder of the pack is no longer a pack at this point.”

Wildlife managers have been struggling to boost the wolf population and the number of packs in New Mexico and Arizona since the reintroduction program began in 1998. Efforts have been hampered by everything from politics to lawsuits and illegal shootings.

An annual survey done at the beginning of the year showed at least 58 wolves in the wild – far below what biologists had initially expected.

The next survey will begin in January, and Lefton said the hope is that some of the pups born this year will make it through the winter.

Wolf program managers said they are monitoring the Fox Mountain pups but no supplemental feeding is planned.

Managers are considering several options for releasing wolves in Arizona to replace three wolves that were killed over the past year, but no final decisions have been made.