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Our Opinion: Opposition, Illegal Killings Must Not End Wolf Recovery

Wolf population still down along Arizona-New Mexico border

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Citizen Staff Writers

The troubled relationship between man and wolf has grown more contentious along the Arizona-New Mexico border.

So far this year, three female Mexican gray wolves - an endangered species - have been illegally shot, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Agency reported last week.

The killings came in an area where the wolf is being reintroduced, a half-century after it was hunted out of existence in the wild.

It was 10 years ago last March that 11 pioneer Mexican gray wolves were released to run free in the forests of eastern Arizona. The decade-long experiment has a checkered record with many rural residents opposed to their presence.

But that opposition from a few must not be allowed to doom this bold experiment that has long-range environmental benefits.

Since the reintroduction began in March 1998, 28 wolves have been illegally shot and killed despite fines of up to $75,000 and a year in jail. Other wolves have died after being hit by vehicles and some were removed because they killed livestock.

The federal government has a policy of removing any wolf that kills three head of livestock in a year. But this step, taken to appease ranchers, has not been enough to halt the opposition and the illegal wolf killings.

Officials had predicted that by now there would be a self-sustaining population of 100 wolves and 18 breeding pairs in the area. But there are only 52 wolves and four breeding pairs.

Fish & Wildlife has sound reasons for bringing back the wolves. Ecologists have shown that wolves bring untold benefits to the entire region by improving the overall health of game populations and reduce the damage caused by overgrazing from deer and elk herds.

Because wolves see cattle as slow-moving meals, conflicts between ranchers and wolves are inevitable. But a handful of people acting illegally must not be allowed to derail this well-developed and well-researched program.

The wolves have a historic place in this part of the country. They must be allowed to reclaim it.