PHOENIX – For the first time in four years, a Mexican gray wolf will be released into the forest of eastern Arizona to expand the population and genetic strength of the endangered species.
The adult male will be released into the Apache National Forest after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife's regional office approved replacing a pack's alpha male that was killed illegally last summer.
At last count, there were 58 Mexican gray wolves in Arizona and New Mexico as part of a recovery program launched in 1998.
"When the release occurs, the male will hopefully connect with the alpha female who has not mated with another male yet and form a breeding pair in the wild, which is the ultimate goal of this process," said Tom Buckley, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The Arizona Game and Fish Commission voted unanimously in favor of allowing the release.
But not everyone was applauding the step.
"I feel that all releases will help, but this is a drop in the bucket compared to what needs to happen," said Eva Sargent, director of the Southwest program for the Tucson-based conservation group Defenders of Wildlife. "This release is helpful but so small."
Michael Robinson, a conservation advocate with the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, said a new release has been long overdue.
"This is an important first step, but there needs to be dozens of wolves released to expand the population," he said. "A lack of releases has resulted in inbreeding and reduced pup litter sizes."
Mexican gray wolves are native to Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Mexico. They gained protection under the Endangered Species Act in the 1970s after being hunted to the brink of extinction.
Robinson's group currently is involved in two lawsuits against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over the recovery plan.
One lawsuit seeks to designate the Mexican gray wolf as a subspecies to grant it extra protection as an endangered species. The group also is demanding a new recovery plan to replace the one put in place in 1982.
While the environmental groups want even more wolves released, Buckley noted that captivity-bred wolves, known as naive wolves, don't always have the personality to succeed in the wild.
"If they are not aggressive enough to hunt or if they become too habituated with people, they may not survive in the wild," he said.
Buckley said that if the pack in question were still intact, the pending release wouldn't occur because it would introduce conflict within the group.
"We have close to 300 wolves in our captive breeding program, but not all are candidates for release because they need the right genetic makeup for the area," he said. "The way we prefer to do it, with wolves bred in captivity, requires us to avoid releasing wolves into an area that is already occupied and that's not a huge area."