Bigger wolf habitat sought in Arizona, New Mexico

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By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) -- Federal officials want to expand Mexican gray wolves' potential habitat beyond its current small range along the New Mexico-Arizona border.

The habitat needs to be expanded and the program's rules changed to manage the experimental wolf population in areas worked by ranchers and others and to grow the wolf population while widening its distribution and genetic variation, the Fish and Wildlife Service said.

The agency on Thursday released suggested revisions to a June 2013 proposal, now proposing to extend the territory for releasing and relocating wolves deep into west-central Arizona and east-central New Mexico and as far south as the U.S.-Mexico border.

The proposed habitat would stop at Interstate 40 on the north, not extending as far as the Grand Canyon region as some environmentalists and scientists advocated.

Wolves wandering north into the San Francisco Peaks just north of Flagstaff or Grand Canyon National Park and beyond would be removed, the Arizona Daily Sun ( ) reported.

Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity said the center was encouraged that more wolves will be able to roam more widely under the proposals, but he criticized the northern limit.

"It appears they're still not going to let them roam beyond I-40, which cuts them off from the Grand Canyon ecoregion, as well as the Rocky Mountains, which are both places that scientists have said Mexican gray wolves need in order to be able to recover," he said.

Tracy Melbihess of the federal Mexican Wolf Recovery Program said the long-term plan could still eventually include the Grand Canyon and other regions north of I-40.

"We have not yet determined what the big picture is for the Mexican gray wolf," Melbihess said "We know it's going to probably entail several populations spread over a large geographical area."

The Fish and Wildlife Service and cooperating tribal, state and federal agencies have been introducing Mexican gray wolves in the area since 1998.

January numbers show that there were 83 Mexican wolves - 46 in New Mexico and 37 in Arizona - in the wild. Up from 75 in 2012.

The proposal is subject to 60 days of public comment. It includes a draft environmental impact statement and revisions to proposed rule changes.

But Fish and Wildlife says that the proposal to expand the wolf recovery habitat beyond the current experimental area in the Blue Range in eastern Arizona and western New Mexico is only a stopgap measure, required under a lawsuit settlement with the Center for Biological Diversity.

Once the environmental impact statement process is completed, federal scientists will immediately begin work on a long-term recovery plan. That plan is expected to be released within two to three years, the service said.

The expansion area's southern boundary previously had been set at Interstate 10, but the service decided to move the boundary to the international border because Mexico has started its own wolf reintroduction program.

Wolves will often roam vast distances in search of food and mates, making it likely some will cross the border.

Robinson expressed concern that the proposed changes also broaden guidelines allowing ranchers to kill Mexican wolves.

Melbihess said that illegal kills are a much larger concern than the legal kills that would be allowed under the environmental impact statement.

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