Something has gone awry -- some would say everything has -- in the federal government's effort to reestablish the population of Mexican wolves, North America's most endangered mammal.
Beginning with an initial release of 11 wolves in 1998, the Mexican wolf population in the Southwest was projected to reach at least 100 by 2006. Three years beyond, the number of wolves in the wild is half that.
Wildlife managers -- following the program's often punitive rules -- have contributed to the deaths of more than 25 wolves through shooting, trapping, sedating, penning and relocating the notoriously skittish animals.
A wolf slated for capture died of hyperthermia after a helicopter chase. At least eight wolves died of stress in holding pens. Six pups were killed when placed in the care of another captive pack. The program's most-photographed wolf -- Brunhilda, a young female in the first pack -- died after federal biologists captured her to perform a routine check; the animal became stressed and overheated during the examination and died.
On paper, Gila National Forest was the logical place to reintroduce the Mexican gray wolf. The 3.3 million acres of densely treed slopes, spare grasslands and desert scrub in the nation's first designated wilderness area are stocked with plentiful elk and deer that make up the bulk of wolves' diet.
But endangered-species biology plays out on a complicated landscape of emotion, politics and power -- never on paper.
Critics of the program, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials who designed it, say the Mexican wolf reintroduction has been a dismal failure, falling short of most of its goals. Pup survival rates are far lower than expected, adult wolf mortality higher than projected, and the recovery program is way behind the timeline that federal biologists established.
"We are witnessing the second extinction of the Mexican wolf in the wild," said Michael Robinson, a conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, one of several groups suing the federal government for "failing to recover" the wolf.
"It's the worst-case example abrogation of Endangered Species Act responsibility that I've seen, in many regards," said Jamie Clark, the former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and now executive vice president of the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife.
"Everybody knows what's wrong," she added. "Nobody will lead their way out. No one is taking responsibility."
Benjamin Tuggle, the Southwest regional director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Albuquerque, said there was much he disliked about the program he inherited.
"We've made some mistakes on our own," he said. "We've cost the lives of wolves. I don't want you to think that I am comfortable with where we are in handling these wolves, because I'm not.
"What I'm looking at, however, is a system that is not functioning at its optimum potential."
Gray wolves once roamed widely throughout the Southwest and Mexico, but decades of government extermination programs to support livestock interests rendered the species functionally extinct. The Mexican gray wolf was placed on the federal endangered species list in 1976.
By the 1990s, when the recovery program was conceived, there were fewer than 200 Mexican wolves remaining in North America, nearly all of them in zoos or research facilities. Trappers managed to capture seven wild wolves in Mexico, and those animals became the genetic forebears of the current population.
The first year of the reintroduction set the tone for a troubled program. The first wolf released was illegally shot and killed. Four more met the same fate. The first Mexican wolf pup born in the wild in more than 70 years was presumed dead after its mother was shot. By the end of the year, the Fish and Wildlife Service recaptured the rest of the released wolves and penned them for their own safety.
For a decade, the gray wolf program has limped along, undone, critics say, by measures that penalize the animals for behaving as wolves do.
For example, wolves that stray out of the designated recovery area along the New Mexico-Arizona border are captured, penned and relocated elsewhere in the recovery zone, where the animals then must relearn the geography and locate food and water sources. Ninety-three wayward wolves were "translocated" through 2008.
Perhaps the most controversial policy is the so-called three-strikes rule that was formalized in 2005, when the Fish and Wildlife Service allowed officials in Arizona and New Mexico to set wolf policies.
Under the rule, any wolf that has killed three cows or calves in one year must be "removed" -- shot or placed in captivity indefinitely. Wolves killed 22 cows and calves in 2007, according to Fish and Wildlife.
Policies such as these have created a revolving door that shuttles wolves from holding pens to the wild and back again, hampering adaptation, breeding and pack dynamics.
Those results run counter to the intentions of a captive-breeding program, which ideally should leave wolves able to fend for themselves in the wild without human assistance.
Periodic independent studies commissioned by Fish and Wildlife have consistently criticized the system.
One reviewer remarked: "Frequent social disruption via mortality, recaptures and re-releases have altered the natural territorial behavior of packs. . . . These manipulations may be interfering with pack formation."
"Heavy-handed management from now to forever is not a goal that we should be seeking in this program," said David Parsons, who led the Fish and Wildlife Service's Mexican wolf recovery program from 1990 to 1999.
"There is a price to pay when you are doing a lot of capturing and handling of animals. The idea is to put an animal back into nature and allow [it] to exist like any other animal in nature."
Tuggle, the Fish and Wildlife regional director, said changes were coming.
"I understand the concept of manipulation," he said. "Where we have done those things, they have been disruptive. They have affected the pack dynamics. I'm not a proponent of managing them at the same level that we have been managing them."
But Tuggle will have to face a powerful interest group -- the region's livestock industry, which vigorously opposed wolf reintroduction.
Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers' Assn., said her organization estimated that 1,500 cattle had been killed by wolves in the 11 years since reintroduction.
"Some people say in 11 years that's not a lot of cows, but multiply that by $1,000 per animal, and that's a lot," she said.
Defenders of Wildlife compensates ranchers as much as $3,000 for each animal killed by wolves, and biologists say cattle make up only about 4% of wolves' diet.
The wolf-livestock conflicts persist because, as designed, the gray wolf recovery program placed the animals in harm's way -- smack into an area where federal land is leased for year-round cattle grazing.
In contrast, Canadian wolves released into the Yellowstone ecosystem are thriving, roaming an area that includes national parks and extensive wilderness free of humans and cattle.
Further, the northern Rockies wolf program requires ranchers to dispose of livestock carcasses to discourage wolf scavenging. The Mexican wolf program does not. The presence of cattle carcasses in Gila National Forest attracts wolves to livestock areas, tantalizing the packs with the option of killing slow-footed cattle, rather than having to chase fleet elk through rough country.
Ranchers insist that collecting dead cows on their federal grazing allotments is not possible, Cowan said.
Tuggle agreed that the socioeconomic landscape for the wolves is less than ideal.
"You've got these diametrically opposed forces: This predator that has a right to be in this space, and the other is this prey base, cattle, that has a right to be in this space," he said. "It doesn't take you long to cook that formula and come up with a pretty explosive situation."
As special interests and bureaucrats hash out their differences, Maggie Dwire, assistant wolf recovery coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service, hauls a wheelbarrow carrying a road-kill elk into pens at Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, a spare slice of the Chihuahuan Desert south of Albuquerque. The wolves in the half- to 1-acre enclosures were bred in captivity and are being prepared for release into the wild.
Dwire and veterinarian Susan Dicks say they limit their interactions with the wolves so they retain their natural fear of humans.
"That's good. We like to see that," Dicks said, watching three slender gray wolves run in circles and pant nervously as she and Dwire entered a pen with the elk carcass.
Their reaction to humans will protect them, Dwire said.
She shrugged when asked about the morass that lies ahead for wolves.
"What has been a success in this program is that captive-bred wolves have shown they can be released into the wild and know what to do," Dwire said. "They know how to be wolves. It would be good if we could ever let them do that."