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Two facilities are in New Mexico, including one located on a ranch owned by media mogul Ted Turner, and the third is near Seattle. The wolf halfway houses are designed to minimize human contact.
"We try to precondition wolves to come out into the wild," Boyd-Heger said. "We don't take wolves out of the Phoenix Zoo or the Rio Grande Zoo and dump them out here. You are just asking for huge problems."
While providing time for wolves to get used to more natural settings, prerelease facilities also constrain the number of wolves available for release at any one time. Some environmental groups have been advocating a mass release of wolves in response to the shootings.
But Boyd-Heger said that's not an option.
"We have shortage of supply, definitely," Boyd-Heger said. "We don't have 50 wolves that are ready to go."
But there is a far more important reason for wolves to breed in the wild. It will only be after several generations in the forest that true, wild Mexican gray wolves will be roaming the countryside once again, she said.
"The wild-born pups of wild-born wolves--that's where the future of this project is," Boyd-Heger said. "These wolves here are just sort of expendable seed. I hate to say it because it sounds so callous.
"The first generation are sort of knucklehead wolves. The only thing they know is the chain-link fence and people bringing them food. Then all of a sudden they are in this wonderful new world. My theory is when the gates first opened and they stepped out, they probably spent weeks looking for the end of the fence."
She anticipates that once a pool of wild-born wolves starts to reproduce, and the first generation of captive wolves die off, there will be far fewer problems with wolves entering towns.
"The captive-raised wolves are more prone to hang around with people," she said.
Such behavior was exhibited by wolf No. 494, a two-year-old Hawk's Nest female who took up residence in Alpine for three weeks, occasionally rooting through trash cans at the Bear Wallow Cafe, a hangout for locals, ranchers and hunters.
"We did everything we could to discourage her. We tried throwing firecracker shells at her [and] rubber bullets. We chased her with a vehicle, threw rocks at her. She wouldn't leave," said Boyd-Heger.
The wolf's presence in town created havoc.
"Everybody was afraid it would kill their goat, or sheep or dog or cat or kids or whatever--any number of ugly scenarios of which any are possible," Boyd-Heger said.
"I mean, we don't know what will happen."
As it turned out, not much.
"She wasn't able to kill anything, except one night she got into a chicken coop. She got three chicks and a duck," she said.
On another occasion, the female wolf was nearly crushed after she started chasing mules and horses in a corral.
"She got rolled by one of the mules and boxed into a solid corner of the corral and we thought she would get killed," she said.
The encounter proved entertaining.
"Not only were we watching it, but it was Memorial Day weekend and there were people on the highway with binoculars watching a wolf get run down by a couple of mules," she said, laughing.
"So the potential was really hot for something bad to happen. Thank goodness the people of Alpine were open to calling us when they saw the wolf."
The wolf was captured and returned to captivity.
The Alpine wolf's trash-digging and proclivity for chasing domestic animals has been the exception rather than the rule. The wolves had been feeding themselves since early summer, Boyd-Heger said. So far, no ranchers have claimed that wolves have killed any livestock--although a ranch dog appears to have been killed by a wolf and a miniature horse was attacked and injured by a wolf.
While hunting season coincided with the apparently illegal shootings, the wolves that managed to avoid gunfire found a windfall in the form of ample food.
"There has just been a pile of dead elk, walking wounded with arrows sticking out of them, shots and bullets everywhere," Boyd-Heger said.
"Hunters are helping out wolf recovery," she noted. "Interesting twist."
Before hunting season, the wolves had been successful in killing elk calves and taking crippled, injured and old animals. One wolf, the Campbell Blue alpha male, learned to dig up mountain lion kills and was finding a steady supply of food.
The first documented elk kill was made by three yearling wolves from the Hawk's Nest pack on April 21. The older wolves didn't get in on the action for several days.
While the shootings and aberrant behavior have seriously hindered wolf recovery efforts, the relatively small release area contributed to problems with siting of the acclimation pens.
Two of the acclimation pens housing the three-member Campbell Blue pack and the six-member Hawk's Nest pack were located within four miles of each other. Wolf packs typically do not peacefully share territories. Wolf experts projected the Mexican gray wolf packs, averaging about five members, would have territories of approximately 200 square miles.
"I think they were put too close together, personally," said Boyd-Heger, who joined the recovery team after the sites were selected. "The two pens were essentially put into an area of shared territory."
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