FLAGSTAFF — The federal government is floating a plan that would let endangered Mexican gray wolves roam north toward Flagstaff and across Arizona for the first time in generations.
The Arizona Daily Sun reports that the government's wolf reintroduction program has limited the animals to a recovery area that straddles the Arizona-New Mexico state line, where they have struggled to gain a foothold. Currently, any wolf leaving the recovery area is captured and returned.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a draft of proposed changes last month that, if put into effect, would let wolves roam from western Arizona to eastern New Mexico between Interstates 40 and 10.
The draft includes potential wolf reintroduction sites in northern Arizona on the Tonto National Forest, throughout the Sitgreaves National Forest and other public lands, as well as private lands where there's a participating landowner. The Apache tribe has an agreement with the Fish and Wildlife Service that has allowed wolves to roam on their lands in eastern Arizona.
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.
The federal proposal calls for expanding the area where the wolves could roam to include parts of the Cibola National Forest in central New Mexico. In all, there would be a tenfold increase in the area where biologists are working to rebuild the population.
Environmentalists welcomed the prospect of expansion, but they voiced concerns about provisions that could create loopholes that would expand circumstances in which wolves could be killed for attacking livestock or for other reasons.
Wolves have been spotted in the past as close to Flagstaff as Mormon Lake and Holbrook along Interstate 40, as the animals are capable of traveling vast distances in search of food and mates.
Emily Nelson of the Grand Canyon Wolf Recovery Project in Flagstaff said in an interview with the Daily Sun that conservation groups were unhappy with the initial federal proposal because it doesn't include some of the "last, best area for wolves."
Scientists have identified the Grand Canyon as prime wolf territory.
While the current population has never gotten close to the goal of 100 wolves, scientists say as many as 200 wolves could be supported in the Grand Canyon region alone.
Judy Prosser, whose family operates a ranch south of Mormon Lake and owns some 2,000 head of livestock, would see her grazing lands put inside the expanded wolf recovery area.
Prosser said that her ranching friends in the current recovery area have struggled and not been happy with the way things were managed. Losing livestock has affected their pocketbooks.
"The program has not been successful. I don't think anyone has been happy with the outcome," she said.