TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES, N.M. -- There's a fight over expanding the territory where endangered Mexican gray wolves are allowed to roam as the federal government decides whether to give the wolves more room, but also make it easier to kill them.
'It's unheard of for an animal to be restricted in a habitat by lines drawn on a map,' said Roxanne George, a wolf supporter from Santa Fe.
George joined a group that held a rally in the small town Truth or Consequences, where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service held a public hearing regarding proposed changes to the Mexican grey wolf recovery program.
The program that allows an 'experimental' population in a restricted area, which includes parts of New Mexico and Arizona.
'What we really need is to remove these boundaries so the wolves can go to the best places for them and connect with other wolves,' George said.
Wearing wolf ears, she led the group as they chanted, 'Wolves can't read maps. Science not politics.'
The wolves once roamed most of southwest, including Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and Mexico. But by the 1970s, they were nearly extinct in the wild following extermination campaigns, mostly because they posed a threat to cattle.
To bring the Mexican grey wolf back from the brink of extinction, the U.S. and Mexico agreed to establish a binational captive breeding program.
A small group of wolves were introduced in 1998, but in a limited area that straddles New Mexico and Arizona. The population has since grown to at least 83 wolves.
The proposed changes will give the wolves 15 times the space they have now.
'That's something scientists have recommended for a long time -- that the wolves be allowed to roam and not be restricted by politically-derived boundaries,' said Michael Robinson, director of the Center for Biological Diversity.
His organization sued to get wolves reintroduced in southwest and, along with others, petitioned for rule change that would expand the wolves' territory.
The proposal would extend the area where the wolves are allowed to roam south to the border with Mexico, which has started its own small recovery effort. The first pups where born in the wild in Sonora this spring.
'If they get this expansion, they'll keep pushing until they have them in Texas, too,' said Cody Cummings, a rancher in New Mexico.
'It's getting harder and harder for the small ranchers to make a living out here,' Cummings said.
He said ranchers feel constrained by the number of endangered species that dictate how they can use the land.
In the fight over expanding the wolves' territory, opponents say people must come first. Wolf supporters say wildlife also has to be a top priority.
'The balance is being lost, and we've got to allow the wild things space to roam,' Robinson said.
It's up to the federal government to find a way to balance the two.
'These lands belong to all of us,' said David Carbajal, a resident of Las Cruces who testified at the hearing.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is accepting public comments through September. A decision on whether to expand the protected territory of the Mexican grey wolf is expected early next year.
The proposal would give wolves more room, but also make it easier to kill them.
'When you have a wolf come within yards of your four- and five-year-old daughters on the front porch and remain there for over 25 hours, it's a whole new ball game,' said Crystal Diamond, of the Beaver-head Ranch.
Diamond and other ranching families say they worry about wolves coming too close.
'Very few reliable accounts exist of attacks of healthy gray wolves on humans and none involving death,' according to the Arizona Fish and Game Department. 'This is despite the fact that millions of people work and recreate each year in wolf range in Canada, Alaska, Minnesota, and other areas.'
The proposed changes would allow the killing or 'harassment' of grey wolves that threaten people or attack cattle or dogs.
'We're very concerned that their provision that would allow the federal government, state government, and private individuals to kill a lot more wolves -- which, they definitely cannot afford additional mortality,' Robinson said.
Wolf supporters say there's a way to manage the recovery so ranchers and wolves can coexist.
'We can all share the land. It's just the matter of making the commitment to do that,' George said.