ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — They're all gray wolves, but the Mexican gray wolf is notably different than its faraway cousins, and conservationists now say the animals need specific protection under federal law to avoid extinction.
Three conservation groups filed petitions this week asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the Mexican gray wolf on the federal endangered species list separate from other gray wolves in North America. They say that would force the agency to pay more attention to the animal.
"It's obvious that absent a subspecific designation, Mexican wolves will continue to flounder in the wild and may in fact go extinct for a second time," said Rob Edward of WildEarth Guardians, one of the groups that filed a petition.
The Mexican wolf, a subspecies of the gray wolf, was exterminated in the wild in the Southwest by the 1930s. First listed as endangered as an individual species in 1976, the Fish and Wildlife Service created a species-wide designation for gray wolves in 1978 and included the Mexican wolves.
Edward said the Mexican wolves are being treated as a "side show" despite their fragile foothold in the wild.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not immediately return messages left Tuesday seeking comment about the two petitions.
The government in 1998 began reintroducing wolves along the Arizona-New Mexico line in a 4 million acre-plus territory interspersed with forests, private land and towns. Biologists had hoped to have at least 100 wolves in the wild and 18 breeding pairs by 2006.
The most recent survey shows there were 52 wolves scattered between New Mexico and Arizona at the end of 2008.
The reintroduction effort has been hampered by illegal shootings, complaints from ranchers who have lost cattle to the wolves and removal of wolves that have violated the program's three-strikes rule. Federal agents can kill or trap and remove any wolf that has been involved in three livestock kills within a year.
With the petitions, WildEarth Guardians, The Rewilding Institute and the Center for Biological Diversity hope to force the Fish and Wildlife Service to update a decades-old recovery plan that governs the program.
"I think this is a real exception where you have this recovery program but you don't have a clear idea of what the recovery goals should be based on the current science," said Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity.
Unlike the filing by WildEarth Guardians and The Rewilding Institute, the petition filed Tuesday by Greenwald's group asks the agency to list the Mexican wolf as either a subspecies or a distinct population.
The petition argues that Mexican wolves are more than 700 miles from their nearest cousins in the Rocky Mountains. They also occur in an environment unlike that of other gray wolves, where warm and arid conditions limit vegetation and prey.
Both petitions talk about the Mexican wolf's dire situation and the need to set aside critical habitat to ensure its recovery. Conservationists say the greatest threats to the wolves are livestock grazing and human activity.
If the Fish and Wildlife Service agrees with the petitions, the agency would have to develop a proposed listing rule and eventually a new recovery plan.
On the Net: Mexican gray wolf recovery program: www.fws.gov/southwest/es/mexicanwolf/