SILVER CITY -- Federal wildlife managers are releasing two pairs of Mexican gray wolves in Arizona and New Mexico in hopes of bolstering the population of the endangered predators.
The first pair was transported this week from a captive breeding facility in New Mexico to a holding pen in the Apache National Forest in southeastern Arizona. The male and female will be released once they acclimate to the area.
The other pair is being released at a remote site within the Gila Wilderness in southwestern New Mexico. The wolves were crated and packed into the backcountry Saturday on the backs of specially trained mules.
Officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the wolves would be placed in a temporary enclosure at a release site about a dozen miles from the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. The wolves will be able to chew their way out of the enclosure.
"We continue to be committed to strategic releases that improve genetic diversity, increase the number of breeding wolves and offset illegal mortalities in the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area," Fish and Wildlife Service Regional Director Benjamin Tuggle said in a statement.
Tuggle said he expects the releases to help the agency reach its goal of a self-sustaining wild wolf population.
Environmentalists said the releases were a positive step. They have long criticized the agency for not releasing more wolves. Still, distain for the animals continues to pulse through rural communities, where ranchers feel their livelihoods are at risk.
A subspecies of the gray wolf found in the Northern Rockies, the Mexican wolf was added to the federal endangered species list in 1976. The 15-year effort to reintroduce them in New Mexico and Arizona has stumbled due to legal battles, illegal shootings, politics and other problems.
Officials with the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Arizona Game and Fish Department said much consideration went into choosing which wolves would be released and where they would be let go. Factors included their genetics and whether they had formed a breeding bond as well as the absence of livestock, the distance from homes and whether there were enough elk and other prey.
Members of the wolf recovery team plan on putting out supplemental feed for the wolves while they learn to catch and kill native prey. Officials say that will also help anchor the wolves to the area.