Eleven Mexican gray wolves released into the wild over the weekend were healthy and strong Tuesday as they adjusted to their freedom.
As the animals began to make their own way in the high country of far eastern Arizona, nearby residents opposed to their release continued to grumble.
At the Bear Wallow Cafe in Alpine, building contractor Milt Thompson voiced a view held by ranchers and others.
“I was a hundred percent against it,” he said. “They’ve spent millions of dollars on them. We need deer up here; we don’t need them being eaten.”
New Mexico ranchers filed a lawsuit last week aimed at preventing Sunday’s release, contending that federal officials failed to analyze adequately the reintroduction’s impact on rural economies.
Caren Cowan, director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, said the release will not affect the effort to halt the program. “I don’t think they’ll stray very far.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was notified of the lawsuit on Monday, a day after the release, spokesman Hans Stuart said.
Dave Parsons, the agency’s wolf recovery leader, and Diane Boyd-Hager of the Arizona Game and Fish Department used radio telemetry from an airplane Tuesday to pinpoint where the radio-collared wolves were venturing.
The wolves, in three family groups, were released in the 7,000-square-mile Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area within the Apache National Forest of Arizona and New Mexico’s Gila National Forest.
They were placed in pens there in January. They are now using the pens south of Alpine as a base of operation, roaming up to 1-1/2 miles away, Stuart said.
The Mexican gray wolf had been extinct in the wild for about 50 years, killed off by ranchers to protect their livestock under a government-sponsored program. The species is listed as endangered.
Fish and Wildlife biologists and environmental groups hope to re-establish a self-sustaining population of about 100 wolves in the forests.
“We’re very excited that these wolves are healthy, strong and they have strong social bonds,” Stuart said.
“We will continue what we call supplemental feeding until we know they are hunting on their own and capturing prey on their own. We’re confident they’re going to pick up their hunting instincts very quickly,” he said.
The wolves have eaten road-killed elk left outside their pens, Stuart said.
Biologists hope the three female wolves are pregnant, will start looking for denning sites and will have pups in three to four weeks.
Those opposed to the reintroduction say it makes no sense for federal officials to spend millions bringing back an animal whose eradication it sponsored.
“Down the road they’re probably going to have problems with the cattlemen,” said Floyd Wright, who owns a recreational vehicle park in Alpine.
Wright, a retired logger and construction worker, said inevitably some livestock will fall prey to the wolves, and ranchers will face a red-tape ordeal to get reimbursed, he said.
“It’s just another predator up here that we really don’t need,” he said.