ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The effort to return the endangered Mexican gray wolf to the American Southwest has hit another stumbling block.
Federal and state wildlife officials confirmed Friday that a female wolf that was released into the wild in early May was found dead just one month later in southwestern New Mexico.
The animal, dubbed F1108, had been shot. Authorities released no other details and said the investigation was ongoing.
Top officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have long pointed to illegal shootings as one of the challenges to reintroducing Mexican gray wolves in New Mexico and Arizona. Since reintroduction efforts began in 1998, there have been 50 illegal killings documented, with four occurring just last year.
Environmental groups called the latest wolf death a tragedy.
“The Mexican gray wolf population cannot afford the loss of another individual, let alone a breeding female with pups,” said Nancy Gloman, vice president of field conservation for Defenders of Wildlife. “This wolf and her pups were another critical step toward the promise of recovery.”
A survey at the beginning of the year indicated there were at least 75 wolves in the wild in the two states, marking the largest population since the reintroduction program began. Environmentalists have been pushing the federal government to release more captive animals to boost those numbers.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has cited genetic concerns for moving cautiously with any releases, while ranchers and some rural community leaders have voiced concerns about their safety and livelihoods being compromised by more wolves on the landscape.
Ranchers have blamed the predators for numerous cattle deaths over the years. In June, officials investigated the deaths of three calves in Arizona. Two of the deaths were found to have been caused by wolves.
The wolf found shot in late June was one of four captive animals that the Fish and Wildlife Service had hand-picked for release this spring with the hope of bolstering the wild population. The wolves were to be released in pairs — one in the Gila Wilderness and the other in southeastern Arizona.
After weeks of waiting, the agency pulled the plug on the Arizona release and returned that pair to captivity. The pair in New Mexico fared no better with the male being captured for roaming outside of the recovery area just days after his release.
Soon afterward the pair’s pups were presumed dead, and the female started roaming. She was last located in the northeastern corner of the Gila forest near Kline Mountain.