Where's Asha? An endangered Mexican gray wolf strays from the recovery area again

A Mexican gray wolf has wandered outside the designated recovery area for a second time, months after she was returned to the range, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Asha, also known as Mexican wolf 2754, is a female lone wolf who gained attention last year after straying from the designated Mexican Wolf Experimental Population Area.

The area is a 98.5 million-acre expanse south of Interstate 40, including parts of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests in Arizona and the Gila National Forest in New Mexico.

She previously traveled almost 500 miles north into the southern Rocky Mountains before agencies captured and placed her into captivity in January. In July, Asha was released back into the protected range.

Although Asha’s second foray north of I-40 last week will be treated as unauthorized by state and federal officials, it is encouraging for Mexican Gray Wolf experts and advocates who believe the population area should extend north of I-40 to better protect and sustain the species.

“This is an incredible wolf who has shown us that she’s determined to see what’s beyond the current recovery area,” said Greta Anderson, the deputy director of Western Watersheds Project. “She’s never had conflict with livestock, never displayed any human habituation and simply wants to run north. I hope we let her and see what we can learn from her.”

Government agencies and cattle farmers are concerned about unwanted interactions from allowing wolves like Asha to roam past I-40.

Containing wolves: Wildlife officials drew a line at I-40 for Mexican gray wolves, but has it hurt recovery?

Population surpasses 200 for the first time

After the population dwindled from conflict with livestock, the Mexican gray wolf nearly went extinct and was listed as an endangered species in 1976. Under the Endangered Species Act, wolves cannot be harassed or killed, even outside of the population area, unless they are endangering human safety.

Officials created a captive breeding program to save the species and eventually released the first wolves into the population area in Arizona and New Mexico in 1998.

With limited human activity and few heavily trafficked roads, officials believe the release area is the ideal habitat for wolves. Limiting the wolves to the population area puts them in close proximity to mate and reproduce.

Earlier this year, the population surpassed 200 wolves in the wild for the first time. The Fish and Wildlife Service tracks wolves with radio collars that transmit their location. With the help of state agencies in Arizona and New Mexico, they hope to continue bolstering the wolf population.

Typically, wolves that stray past I-40 eventually turn back toward the recovery area. Asha’s adventures north are unprecedented; no other Mexican wolf had traveled that far since the species was reintroduced in 1998. Her return to the area is equally as uncommon.

Asha was born in the Rocky Prairie pack in Arizona in 2021. After she was fitted with a collar in 2022, officials began to track her movements.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is required to remove all wolves north of I-40 to prevent undesirable interactions with human communities and livestock. Officials also believed Asha was seeking a mate and that she would have better odds in the population area or captivity.

In January, they eventually captured her about 50 miles from the Colorado border and placed her in captivity. She was paired with a male Mexican wolf, in hopes that they would mate. But after reproduction attempts failed, Asha returned to the wild in July.

Lone wolf: Anubis, the wandering Mexican gray wolf, is shot and killed near Flagstaff

Asha's movements 'prove scientists are right'

Both the Fish and Wildlife Service and the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish will track Asha’s movements past the border. They have not released any further information about how they will address Asha’s activity.

The Center for Biological Diversity has an ongoing lawsuit against the Fish and Wildlife Service to revoke the federal regulation that requires the removal of all Mexican wolves north of I-40.

Advocates and wolf biologists believe the recovery zone should expand past I-40 to safeguard the population, create more opportunities for genetic exchange to increase the odds of survival and help wolves adapt to climate change.

Activists believe Asha’s second foray shows natural migration is still observed in wolves and necessary for the rest of the population.

“Wolves are smart, but they don’t read federal regulations,” said Michael Robinson, a senior conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Wolves also don’t read peer-reviewed studies, so it’s striking that Asha’s movements prove scientists’ work correct.”

"The southern Rockies is within loping reach of endangered Mexican wolves and should be part of their recovery area,” Robinson said.

Hayleigh Evans covers environmental issues for The Arizona Republic and azcentral. Send tips or questions to hayleigh.evans@arizonarepublic.com.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Asha, a Mexican gray wolf, strays from the recovery areas again