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Wolves reintroduced into the wild

Face shaky reception from ranchers in Arizona and New Mexico
/ Source: NBC News

The chase is on as wolf biologists dart an alpha male in one of 51 wild packs roaming Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Today there are now more than 750 wolves in the Northern Rockies -- beautiful, healthy symbols of the west. Nine years ago there were none.

"Only a generation ago people really viewed wolves as kind of the spawn of Satan," says Ed Bangs, a wolf recovery coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The returning wolves have caused problems, killing 294 cattle and sheep last year--a small percentage of the 25,000 livestock lost to sickness and other predators. Most ranchers here grudgingly accept them.

"The wolves are a positive presence in this part of the world," says one Montana rancher.

When there is trouble, the cattlemen and sheepherders are compensated. Last year, $68,000 was paid to ranchers. And wolves who are repeat offenders are killed by government hunters -- 200 wolves so far.

Cattle rancher Bruce Malcolm has had two confirmed wolf kills among his herd.

"This was something that was forced on us,” he says. “We had no choice and like a lot of things you just have to adapt to survive."

But 1000 miles south along the New Mexico/Arizona border, a second group of returning wolves is getting a much deadlier reception.

"These wolves are being shot just left and right because anybody sees them they'll say well there's a coyote,” says rancher Sam Luce. “They just zero in on them and pull the trigger."

Here in the southwest, the land is different, the wolves are different and the Department of Fish and Wildlife admits it’s not as successful at convincing ranchers here that they can coexist with wild wolves.

"What we have to work on is building that trust, building that working relationship," says John Oakleaf from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Instead wolves are being killed in alarming numbers --at least 22 Mexican Grays, gathered from zoos and released here have died under suspicious circumstances. Seven were killed this fall -- four by gunshot.

"There are a few individuals who are making a conscious effort to sabotage the program through illegal killings," says Craig Miller, Southwest Director of Defenders of Wildlife.

All this happens despite warnings of jail and fines for anyone trying to silence the wolf and prevent its inevitable return to a West, less wild without it.