Updated: April 3, 2014 at 5:47 pm
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Two Mexican gray wolves have been released in southeastern Arizona, but another pair has been removed in New Mexico after roaming too far north, sparking more criticism from environmentalists about the way the wild population is being managed.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed expanding the area where the predators are allowed to roam, but it could be months before a final decision is reached. Until then, the agency is required to capture those wolves found outside the nearly 7,000-square-mile wolf-recovery area that straddles the Arizona-New Mexico border.
That was the case with a pair that had traveled north to the El Malpais National Monument and Conservation Area near Grants. They had been in the area since February before wildlife managers darted and captured them last Friday.
This was the farthest north a pair of Mexican gray wolves had been documented, said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity.
"This is excellent habitat. It's remote country, and filled with deer," he said. "This would have been an opportunity for the population to expand naturally."
Ranchers and community leaders in rural areas have opposed any plans that would expand the program and the locations where the wolves could be released. They say the wolves threaten the livelihoods and safety of residents who live in areas that border the reintroduction zone.
The Mexican wolf was added to the federal endangered species list in 1976. The 15-year effort to reintroduce the animals in New Mexico and Arizona has stumbled because of legal battles, illegal shootings, politics and other problems.
A survey in January showed there were at least 83 Mexican wolves in the wild in the two states. That's up from 75 last year.
The two wolves captured at El Malpais are being held at Ted Turner's Ladder Ranch in New Mexico while federal officials weigh options for releasing them back into the wild.
To bolster wolf numbers, officials on Wednesday released the first of two breeding pairs in Arizona's Apache National Forest. The pair included a pregnant female and a wild male captured during the annual wolf population survey in January.
Another pair being held at a breeding center in New Mexico will be released next week.
Eva Lee Sargent, director of Defenders of Wildlife's Southwest Program, said the releases are good news. If the pairs succeed, she said their offspring will add to the genetic diversity of the struggling population.
Still, Sargent and others said the Fish and Wildlife Service needs to release more wolves and implement a recovery plan if the species has any chance of survival in the wild.
Without new wolves being released, Robinson said inbreeding will continue and the wild population will have a more difficult time finding mates that are not related.
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