ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - One of the Mexican gray wolf pups that survived the largest fire in Arizona history last summer has been found dead along a forest road, and federal wildlife officials on Tuesday confirmed a single gunshot wound was to blame.
The carcass of the female pup was found at the end of March just west of Alpine, Ariz. A preliminary exam failed to reveal an obvious cause of death, but a necropsy done at a federal forensic laboratory in Oregon determined the wolf had been shot.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Arizona Game and Fish Department on Tuesday urged anyone with information regarding the shooting to contact law enforcement officers with the two agencies.
A reward of up to $10,000 is being offered by the Fish and Wildlife Service and Arizona's Operation Game Thief is offering another $1,000 for information leading to the conviction of the person or people responsible for the illegal shooting of the pup or any other Mexican gray wolf.
Other organizations and private individuals have pledged an additional $46,000 in reward money.
"With fewer than 60 Mexican gray wolves alive in the wild, every loss is tragic and brings the `lobo' one step closer to extinction," said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups contributing to the reward.
The shooting marks the latest blow to the 14-year effort to reintroduce Mexican gray wolves to the wild in Arizona and New Mexico. The effort has been stalled by everything from illegal shootings, livestock depredations and court battles over management of the reintroduction program.
There are at least 58 wolves in the wild in the two states, according to the latest annual survey completed in January. The survey recorded at least 18 pups among the packs.
The births helped offset the eight wolves that were found dead last year and the one wolf that program officials were forced to kill in December due to safety concerns.
Still, biologists are concerned about high pup mortality and the long-term effects that could have on wild-born pups being able to supplement the population.
The pup found dead near Alpine belonged to the Hawks Nest Pack, which is one of three packs in Arizona that were directly affected by last summer's Wallow Fire. The pack's primary den site was charred by the raging fire, but wildlife officials said the pack members were able to move all of the pups to safety.
The pack produced at least six pups last spring. The wolf reintroduction team believes at least four wolves remain with the pack.
Part of what frustrates supporters of the wolf program is that the Hawks Nest Pack had a reputation for steering clear of trouble despite being uprooted by the fire and living in an area surrounded by livestock, hunters and recreationists.
Officials said the pack has no documented livestock kills or nuisance incidents involving people.
"These wolves have been able to live and breed ... with little to no interaction with the people that also use the area," the Fish and Wildlife Service and Arizona Game and Fish Department said in a statement.
Robinson used the shooting to renew his call for the federal government to not loan to landowners and others in the wolf recovery area radio telemetry receivers that allow them to track collared wolves.
While the receivers are meant for preventing livestock depredation and nuisance incidents, critics say they make the wolves vulnerable to poaching.
The Mexican gray wolf, a subspecies of the gray wolf, once roamed New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and Mexico. Hunting and government-sponsored extermination campaigns all but wiped out the predator.
It was added to the federal endangered species list in 1976, and a captive-breeding program was started. The first batch of wolves was released in May 1998.