ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Five Mexican gray wolves have been released in a mountain range just south of the U.S.-Mexico border as part of an effort to re-establish the species throughout its historic range, the Mexican Environmental Department announced Wednesday.
Supporters of wolf reintroduction in the American Southwest said they hope the release in Mexico will provide a genetic boost to a struggling population of wolves that has been established in New Mexico and Arizona over the past 13 years.
Still, supporters worry that additional fencing along the border or wolf recovery policies established by U.S. wildlife officials could have an impact on the wolves' success in both countries.
"It's very good news and we have high hopes," Michael Robinson of the group Center for Biological Diversity said of the release. "But it's a very tenuous start and not only events in Mexico but policy decisions in the U.S. could very well undermine it."
Mexican officials released three female wolves — ages 11, 4 and 3 — and two 3-year-old male wolves in Sonora's San Luis Mountains last week. The effort was led by the government agency that oversees Mexico's natural resources and the environment.
The agency said the wolves had gone through rehabilitation in northern Mexico and were fitted with GPS collars so they could be tracked.
The reintroduction has been 20 years in the making. Mexico has established 18 captive-breeding facilities and has more than five dozen wolves.
"The implementation of these programs can gradually expand the population of endangered species, achieving a successful breeding," the agency said in a statement.
A release of captive wolves into the wild was first proposed in 2009 but faced delays. Just last month, Mexican officials announced they were working on finding a suitable time for the release.
Similar work in the U.S. started in 1998, but that program has been troubled by court battles, disputes between ranchers and environmentalists, livestock depredations and illegal shootings.
A recent decision by New Mexico game commissioners to lift a trapping ban in the wolf recovery area has also caused concern among supporters of the reintroduction effort.
If the wolves released in Mexico cross the border, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said they will have the full protection of the federal Endangered Species Act as long as the animals are outside the boundaries of the wolf recovery area that spans southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico.
If the wolves are found within the recovery area, they will be considered as part of the experimental population — a classification that gives wildlife officials greater flexibility in managing the predators.
Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Tom Buckley said the agency is working on a management plan for monitoring the wolves if they cross into the United States.
The agency is also revamping its own recovery plan for the Mexican gray wolf. Conservationists are expecting the document to address numerous aspects, including the potential for a contiguous population that spans the border.
Buckley said Mexico has not shared any information about the recent release with the Fish and Wildlife Service.
In Mexico, the wolf is one of 30 at-risk species for which the country hopes to implement conservation plans for by 2012.
Associated Press writer Adriana Gomez Licon in Mexico City contributed to this report.