Starting new wolf packs in the wild is essential to the success of the project. The project lacks enough captive wolves to make a mass release, as was done in Yellowstone National Park, where wild wolves were transplanted en masse after being captured in the Canadian Rockies.
The Mexican gray wolf project must first select wolves with suitable genetic and behavioral characteristics for release from a pool of captive wolves held in zoos around the country. The chosen few are then transported to one of three isolated prerelease facilities, where they will remain for a year or more.
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.