updated 7/8/2004 12:46:54 PM ET 2004-07-08T16:46:54

A judge has rebuffed an effort by ranching groups to shut down the Mexican gray wolf reintroduction program, saying the animals’ survival is more important than minor economic losses.

U.S. District Judge M. Christina Armijo rejected a preliminary injunction of the program despite ranchers’ allegations that wolves have attacked cattle and could breed with dogs to create a hybrid species.

“In this case,” Armijo wrote in her order Tuesday, “the balance of hardships and the public interest weigh in favor of allowing the reintroduction and translocation efforts.”

The program began with the release of 11 captive-bred wolves into the Arizona wild in March 1998. About 30 of the wolves were listed in the wild in both New Mexico and Arizona as of late 2003.

The goal was to have a sustainable population of 100 Mexican gray wolves in their historic habitat. The wolves were virtually hunted to extinction during the first half of the 20th century, surviving only in captivity.

A preliminary injunction petition was filed in October by the Coalition of Arizona-New Mexico Counties for Stable Economic Growth and eight other groups, described as representing the interests of the livestock industry and rural economies of Arizona and New Mexico.

One allegation by the plaintiffs was that dogs and wolves would interbreed and produce a “hybrid swarm.” Such cross-species breeding has been rare in the wild, the judge said, and would be unlikely to compromise reintroduction overall.

Michael Robinson of Pinos Altos, N.M., staff member with the pro-wolf Center for Biological Diversity, called the ruling fair. “We’re delighted with it — it lifts the pall over the Mexican wolf population,” Robinson said.

Messages went unanswered late Wednesday seeking comment from the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau and from the New Mexico Cattlegrowers Association.

Gray wolves in Arizona, New Mexico and parts of Colorado, Utah, Texas and Oklahoma are still considered endangered. But the species was removed from the endangered species list in the Southeast, where the Fish and Wildlife Service said they never roamed.

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