By Chris Roberts
GILA NATIONAL FOREST, N.M. — Howls drifted through the night as a quarter moon rose over a ridge in the Elk Mountains. On each of its two cries, the Mexican gray wolf let out a prolonged, primal note that ended with a quick slide down the scale to silence.
Even the sound of the Mexican wolf is rare. Its numbers have declined for decades, and this particular subspecies is in danger of vanishing from the earth.
Since June 9, three Mexican wolves have been shot illegally, leaving a total of 39 in the wild, said Tom Buckley, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wild life Service. By far the most common cause of death is illegal shooting, according to the agency.
To some people, particularly those who make a living raising cattle, the end of the Mexican wolf could not come too soon. Others says the wolf is a necessary check and balance in the ecosystem, and its cousin in the Rocky Mountains has made life markedly better around Yellowstone National Park.
Mexican wolves once roamed large parts of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Mexico. Hunting, trapping and poisoning, mostly carried out by U.S. government agencies, nearly eliminated wolves from the Southwest by the late 1960s. Extermination campaigns continued until 1976, when the government listed the Mexican gray wolf as an endangered species.
The few remaining wild wolves were in Mexico. Those animals were trapped in the mid-1970s and, with a few pure-blood captive wolves, biologists started a breeding program. Seven wolves represent the “founders” of the current population, which totals about 340 animals. Most live in zoos.
A reintroduction effort began on March 29, 1998, when 11 wolves were released into an Arizona wilderness. Some wolves, as expected, migrated into promising habitat in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest.
Large herds of elk, the Mexican wolves’ preferred prey, range through the Gila’s Ponderosa pines and open grassland. Most years, large herds of cattle also graze that public land.
Ranchers say their cattle provide easy meals for wolves. Supporters of wolf reintroduction say that the number of cattle killed is small and that ranchers are reimbursed for their losses.
As the political conflict grinds on, wolves struggle to mate, have pups and create packs. They are highly social animals that group together for hunting, raising young and other activities.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plan called for populating the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area — 4.4 million acres, two-thirds of which are in New Mexico — with 102 wolves by the end of 2006. But progress slowed for many reasons. They included poaching and legal killing or relocation of wolves that strayed outside the recovery area or preyed on cattle.
Dwindling numbers have created concerns about inbreeding, which can lead to small litters and lower survival rates for the pups, said Michael Robinson of the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity.
Even the captive population of about 300 animals may not save the Mexican wolf, according to a March 2009 paper written by Richard Fredrickson, with the University of Montana’s Wild life Biology Program.
The captive population’s “ability to prevent extinction of Mexican wolves is declining, and this decline will likely not be linear, but instead accelerate over time,” Fredrickson wrote. “In my opinion, Mexican wolves are at best only a few tiny steps away from the ‘brink of extinction.’ ” …
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