ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - Nine Mexican gray wolves have died in the wild so far this year, including three females that were illegally shot, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Thursday.
The latest shootings raise the toll to 28 wolves that have been illegally shot since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began reintroducing the endangered species in the Southwest in 1998, agency spokeswoman Elizabeth Slown said Thursday.
The killings will not stop the reintroduction program, said Benjamin N. Tuggle, director of Fish and Wildlife's Southwest Region.
"We fully intend to establish a genetically sound population of Mexican wolves in New Mexico and Arizona," he said in a news release.
Penalties for killing a Mexican gray wolf include fines of up to $75,000 and up to a year in jail.
Fish and Wildlife is offering a reward of $10,000 for information leading to those responsible for any wolf deaths.
All three wolves shot this year were alpha females. Generally only the alpha members of a pack mate and bear young.
The agency would not say where the wolves were killed.
Fish and Wildlife is investigating the shootings and also is seeking law enforcement assistance from other state and federal agencies involved in the reintroduction program.
"A strong cooperative law enforcement presence affirms that we won't tolerate an illegal taking of any endangered species," Tuggle said.
Two of the other wolves that died this year were hit by vehicles, Fish and Wildlife said. A female died of natural causes, and her two pups did not survive - probably because of the loss of their mother as their primary provider of food, the agency said.
Agency officials are awaiting results of tests on the ninth wolf, an alpha male, to determine how it died.
From 1998 to 2007, 10 wolves died when they were hit by vehicles and eight others died of natural causes, Slown said.
This year's official annual tally of wolves counted 52 Mexican gray wolves, including four breeding pairs. In 2007, there were 59 wolves and six breeding pairs.
Officials originally predicted that by now, there would be a self-sustaining wild population of 100 wolves and 18 breeding pairs.
Fish and Wildlife itself has removed dozens of wolves from the wild over the past decade under a policy that requires removal of any wolf that kills three head of livestock in a year.
Mexican gray wolves disappeared from the Southwest during the past century because of federal eradication efforts.
The reintroduction program began with the release of 11 wolves into the designated recovery area on the Arizona-New Mexico border. The area includes 4.4 million acres of the Gila and Apache Sitgreaves national forests in southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona plus Arizona's 1.6 million-acre White Mountain Apache reservation. The area is interspersed with private land and towns.