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New Mexico, meanwhile, continued to balk.
Rather than overriding New Mexico's objections and also studying potential release sites there, FWS focused on Arizona.
"That's where the politics comes in," says Dave Henderson, director of the New Mexico Audubon Society, a member of the Wolf Action Group. "They really limited the scope and size of the primary reintroduction area."
As a result, the wolves can only be released in Greenlee County, on the Apache National Forest, an area comprising less than 15 percent of the entire wolf recovery area.
"The problem with the release area is it is just too small," says Mike Seidman, a Phoenix Zoo wolf keeper who monitored the wolves in the acclimation pens for months.
Not only is the release area too small, Seidman says it's located in the wrong part of the sprawling wolf recovery area.
"It's too close to the western border," Seidman says. "That's politically motivated. That's not biology driving that."
The location of the release area already has profoundly hampered the program. So far, the wolves have shown little interest in traveling very far east. Instead, several wolves have migrated to the west, one traveling as far as Show Low before she was recaptured with the help of a helicopter and a net gun; another headed north toward St. Johns and was recaptured.
Several other wolves have frequented the White Mountain Apache Indian Reservation to the west of the recovery area. The White Mountain Apaches had formally opposed wolf reintroduction, but last summer passed a resolution stating the tribe would accept wolves that take up residence on the reservation, and any offspring. A formal agreement between the tribe and the FWS is being negotiated.
The tentative addition of the reservation adds 1.63 million acres of potential recovery area for the wolves to the west of the release area.
Environmental groups are calling for FWS to immediately begin reviewing areas in New Mexico's Gila National Forest and the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Area as potential release sites. These areas offer terrain and prey similar to the Apache National Forest sites and are more centrally located within the recovery area.
Forest Guardians, a Santa Fe-based environmental group, has identified 620,000 acres of roadless areas with virtually no livestock in New Mexico's Gila National Forest as a suitable area for wolf release.
It is unlikely that FWS will take the Forest Guardians proposal seriously. FWS regional director Nancy Kaufman says the current release sites are the best ones.
"We looked at a whole host of sites for the EIS [environmental impact statement] and determined which ones we thought were the best, and we are using them," she says.
Not everyone in the program agrees with Kaufman's assessment.
Dave Parsons, the FWS wolf recovery leader, says the agency has no idea if there are suitable release sites in New Mexico.
"It is very difficult to speculate on that because we didn't do any release-site analysis on New Mexico," he says.
FWS biologist Wendy Brown says New Mexico's political opposition prevented the identification of possible release sites.
"If New Mexico had been interested in being a full cooperator in the project, it probably would have happened," Brown says.
Diane Boyd-Heger adds, "You cannot remove the politics, as much as I would like to. The reality is, they have to be released in Greenlee County."
The faint beep beneath the static on the radio receiver brought good news to Boyd-Heger as she drove through the heart of the Apache National Forest on a late November morning.
To an untrained ear, the blip was all but undetectable. But to one of the nation's most experienced wolf biologists, the sound thundered through the cool air, confirming that Mexican gray wolf No. 131 was nearby.
Even after two decades of tracking wolves in Romania, Minnesota, Montana and Idaho, Boyd-Heger still gets excited at the prospect of a wolf encounter. And for good reason. She is in a race against time--against Mother Nature and the onset of winter; against human nature and the crack of a rifle.
"I'm trying to get ahead of this wolf and get him caught," Boyd-Heger said as she turned the pickup down a Forest Service road lined with hunters' vehicles. "It's opening of elk season, and I'm really nervous and I want to get him caught. I don't want him with a bullet in him."
The wolf reintroduction team, led in the field by Boyd-Heger, was conducting a mop-up operation after a tumultuous year--five dead wolves, three removed from the program, one adult and one pup missing.
The shootings, combined with the wolves' wanderlust, forced biologists to recapture the two remaining alpha males who had lost their mates, and start over.
No. 131 is the alpha male of the six-member Hawk's Nest pack. Bullets already have killed two members of that pack. A third member would be gunned down within days. Another Hawk's Nest wolf, the alpha female, had been missing for months and is presumed dead. The fifth member of the pack was removed from the field after spending three weeks in and around Alpine.
Boyd-Heger wanted to capture No. 131 and put him back into an acclimation pen where he could bond with a female that was brought to replace his mate.