By Susan Montoya Bryan / The Associated Press
A month after voting to oppose any new releases of Mexican gray wolves, officials with the Arizona Game and Fish Department have amended their policy and reaffirmed their support for conserving the endangered animal.
The troubled effort to reintroduce wolves in Arizona and New Mexico became more clouded in December when the Arizona game commission voted not to support any releases until the federal government revamped its decades-old recovery plan for the species.
Critics voiced concerns, saying it could be another year before a draft of the new plan is released.
Lynda Lambert, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, said Wednesday that the commission realized they needed to address questions over releases in the short term.
“By no means were they trying to decrease the population or discourage the program,” she said. “It was something they had not considered.”
With the new amendment, the replacement of lost wolves will be decided on a case-by-case basis.
In the case of an illegal shooting or other unlawful act in which a wolf is killed, the Arizona game director will have the authority to approve a wolf release. In all other cases, any releases to replace lost wolves would have to go through the game commission.
The commission said in a statement that it will continue to support the wolf program financially and with infrastructure support. The statement came after the commission’s regular meeting Friday.
The federal government started its reintroduction effort along the New Mexico-Arizona border in 1998 with the release of 11 wolves. Biologists had hoped to have more than 100 wolves in the wild by 2006, but the numbers continue to hover around 50.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is working on its annual wolf count. There’s some hope for improvement given the number of pups that were spotted with some of the packs last summer.
In the last five years, there have been more than a dozen transfers of wolves around the reintroduction area, which spans millions of forested acres in Arizona and New Mexico. But only once during that time – in 2008 – have wildlife managers released a new wolf as part of the program.
Under the program’s rules, initial releases can only happen in Arizona.
Eva Sargent with the group Defenders of Wildlife said the softening of Arizona’s no-release policy is good news for the program.
“With only about 50 wolves in the wild in Arizona and New Mexico combined, more lobos need to be released or the population will likely spiral toward extinction,” she said.
Biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife have said that releases planned last year were hampered by everything from politics to the massive Wallow Fire that burned through wolf territory in Arizona and part of southeastern New Mexico.