After years of preparation, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) released eleven Mexican gray wolves into the wild in the Blue Range Recovery Area of Arizona's Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in 1998. By the end of that year, five of the wolves had been shot in what some officials believed to be a concerted effort to sabotage the reintroduction effort. Another wolf was missing, and the remaining five were recaptured. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt reiterated the government's determination to restore the Mexican wolf to a portion of its historical range. Everyone knew that 1999 would be a crucial year -- one that could make or break the recovery program.
The FWS set as its goal the successful reintroduction of six potential breeding pairs in 1999. Wolf specialists were confident that, given a chance, the wolves would thrive in the Blue Range Recovery Area. Studies of prey items the previous year indicated that the wolves were primarily hunting elk. Occasionally they scavenged unretrieved hunter kills, and, on one occasion, in December 1998, a pair of wolves entered a hunter's camp and scavenged from a white-tailed deer carcass. They were observed by five people in the camp, none of whom interfered with them.
Meanwhile, project personnel stepped up public outreach efforts. Special mailings were sent to over 20,000 hunters in Arizona and New Mexico. Large signs with information on the reintroduction effort were posted at strategic sites throughout the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. Presentations were made to schools and civic groups in the area. Biologists conducted media interviews and tours in the field. They also participated in a broadcast on MSNBC along with representatives of the Arizona and New Mexico Cattlegrowers Associations as well as Michael Blake, author of the novel Dances with Wolves.
When 1999 arrived, the project was confronted by a lawsuit brought against the Mexican wolf reintroduction project by the New Mexico Cattlegrowers Association. Defenders of Wildlife and dozens of other groups were admitted by the court as defendant-intervenors. The purpose of the lawsuit was to halt any further releases; nonetheless, by July 1999 there were 22 Mexican wolves ranging free in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. They were in five family groups -- the Campbell Blue pair; the Mule Pack, whose alpha female gave birth to four pups that April; the Hawks Nest Pack, whose alpha female produced three pups; the Pipestem Pack, with an undetermined number of pups produced in the wild during the 1999 breeding season; and the Gavilan Pack, whose alpha female gave birth to five pups.
By midyear, only one wolf had been killed; a necropsy determined that the mortality was caused by collision, probably with a vehicle, as the carcass was found near Highway 191. During this period, the first confirmed wolf predation on livestock occurred. In June a calf was attacked, but survived after veterinary care. On July 11, the confirmed kill occurred. Defenders of Wildlife offered the rancher full compensation. Project personnel undertook trapping efforts, and captured the alpha male and a yearling two days later. In August a male pup was also captured. The alpha female and other pups remained free for a time, but there were no further depredations on livestock. At the end of August three more pups were captured. The captured wolves were held at the Sevillita National Wildlife Refuge captive management facility while a suitable relocation was decided upon. During their captivity, several of the pups died; virology analyses indicated that cause of death was probably canine parvovirus. This spurred project personnel to be more thorough in vaccinating pups against such diseases.
In late summer the Gavilan Pack was involved in several confirmed depredations on livestock. Project personnel attempted to drive the wolves out of the area with intensive monitoring, planned disturbance and the placement of food. The livestock owner moved his cattle in the opposite direction. This "displacement" technique seemed to work -- no further depredations were reported.
In October, Federal Judge Edwin Mechem ruled in favor of the FWS and the coalition of conservation groups after the New Mexico Farm Bureau tried to halt the reintroduction program. The Farm Bureau argued that naturally occurring wild wolves existed in the area, and that their full protection was at risk due to the reintroduction, which carried with it a designation of the reintroduced wolves as "experimental non-essential" and therefore subject to being killed if they harmed livestock. The Farm Bureau also argued that the reintroduced wolves were actually hybrid wolf-dogs. The judge ruled that neither argument had validity.
Also in October, the Campbell Blue Pack's alpha female was found dead near a road, and necropsy suggested that she had been slain by a mountain lion. In spite of this loss, the 1999 reintroduction effort was deemed a success. Only two wolves had been killed -- neither by gunshot -- and only five head of cattle had been lost to wolf depredation. It was generally acknowledged, however, that the long-term success of the recovery program depended on the ability of the wolves to establish territories in the Gila National Forest across the border in New Mexico. The primary release zone in Arizona's Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest would not, in itself, suffice to support a viable population. The Gila National Forest made up two-thirds of the Blue Range Recovery Area, and consisted of prime wolf habitat with low human, road, and livestock densities.
In December, seven members of the Gavilan Pack were relocated into the Gila National Forest. Shortly thereafter, a confirmed and much-publicized depredation on livestock occurred. By year's end there were 21 wolves in the wild. But, clearly, the battle to restore the Mexican gray wolf had only just begun.
After much difficulty, the Mexican gray wolf recovery program seemed to be on course by the year 2000. However, the head of the project, Brian Kelly, noted that the program faced potential problems not encountered in other recovery areas, such as Yellowstone and North Carolina; in the vicinity of the Blue Range there was a strong anti-government tradition which inclined many residents to oppose, in principle, any effort by a federal agency to impose the government's will. In addition, the recovery area had long been a region utilized by livestock interests, with the result being that substantial wolf-human conflict was probably unavoidable.
According to Kelly, still other problems existed.For example, there was relatively little data on the biological and ecological history of the subspecies, Canis lupus baileyi. In his opinion, reaching the initial recovery goal of 100 wolves would not secure the long-term viability of the Mexican wolf; in short, 100 individuals was an ineffective population size for so social a subspecies. Then, too, tribal cooperation was essential; the San Carlos tribal area consisted of three million acres, and the White Mountain Apaches had already reached agreement with the FWS with regard to the use of their land for wolf recovery.
As 2000 began, the Campbell Blue Pack consisted of three adult wolves -- M166, the six-year-old alpha male and one of the wolves initially released in 1998, whose mate was killed, and two females, F592 and F594. In May the pack appeared on the San Carlos tribal lands and were trapped by recovery team personnel.
The Hawks Nest Pack consisted of alpha pair M131 and F486 along with three yearlings. M131, a seven-year-old male, was another of the first-release wolves. His initial mate had also been killed, and his first litter consisted of wolves that had either died or been removed from the recovery program. The pack's range was located in the vicinity of the Campbell Blue and Beaver Creek drainages in the Apache National Forest, and were successfully hunting wild game, mostly elk. The pack produced its first wild-born litter that spring.
The Gavilan Pack consisted of only one wolf in the wild, the two-year-old M555. The other members -- alpha female F168, M183, M583, M584 and F585 were removed from the wild due to predation on livestock, and, as of mid-2000, were being held at the Ladder Ranch. M555 had not been involved in the depredation, and was allowed to remain free. However, his radio-collar failed in March, and project personnel feared he was dead.
The Pipestem Pack was led by alpha female F191, the mother of the only wild-born pups of 1999. While the recovery team believed that F191 produced another litter in the spring of 2000, they doubted that any of the pups survived. The pack seemed to have disintegrated, with the other three members -- M627, F624, and F628 -- dispersing. F191 remained in New Mexico's Gila National Forest near Chicken Coop canyon and White Creek.
The Mule Pack consisted of an alpha pair, M190 and F189, and an unknown number of pups. Once the relocation of some wolves into New Mexico was approved in March 2000, the Mule Pack was translocated to the Gila Wilderness. It was thought that in April the alpha female denned and gave birth to a litter. Pup howling was reported in July. Then it seemed that the alpha pair split, with M190 traveling extensively -- he was spotted on one occasion with an unidentified wolf -- while F189 remained in the vicinity of the Gila River's Middle Fork. (F189 had previously been injured during a recapture and a front leg had been amputated.)
The Cienega Pack was released into the wild in March 2000, consisting of M194, M619, F487, and F621. They established a territory south and west of Hannagan Meadows in the Arizona portion of the Blue Range Recovery Area. Meanwhile, the new Francisco Pack, released in July, and consisting of F111 -- originally a member of the Campbell Blue Pack -- with M509, F587, M590, and three pups (two males and one female) were exploring an area near their release site in Arizona.
Meanwhile, a new law in Mexico required the government to press forward with its own wolf recovery program. The Mexican Wolf National Technical Advisory Committee was established in August 1999. Potential release sites in the states of Chihuahua and Sonora as well as in the Sierra Madre Oriental were looked at, but officials stated that two or three years would pass before reintroduction could take place.
At a Mexican Wolf SSP meeting held in El Paso in the summer of 2000, it was reported that the Mexican gray wolf population consisted of 203 animals. That spring witnessed 39 births in the population, with all but ten surviving. In the previous twelve months, 32 wolves had died in captivity. There were 25 facilities in the United States and thirteen in Mexico participating in the program. Of the 18 to 27 wolves in the wild, eighteen had been radio-collared. That number was in keeping with projections made by the recovery team in 1998 -- which was remarkable considering that in 1998 efforts had been made by locals to sabotage the recovery by killing several of the first-release wolves.