The endangered Mexican wolf is migrating farther north in New Mexico

ALBUQUERQUE, NM (AP) — A critically endangered Mexican gray wolf has migrated beyond the species’ recreational range into the more northern reaches of New Mexico, sparking debate over whether to confine the predators as wildlife managers to a specific stretch of the U.S. Southwest should work to boost the population.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service said Tuesday that members of the recovery team have been tracking the lone wolf and notifying ranchers in the area, though they say it poses no threat to human health or public safety.

Wolf-cattle conflict has been a major challenge to the reintroduction program over the past two decades, with ranchers saying wolf killing of livestock remains a threat to their livelihoods, despite efforts by wildlife managers to drive the wolves away and share in the losses to reimburse .

With news that the wolf is traveling north of Interstate 40 in New Mexico, state and federal wildlife officials have reminded people that Mexican wolves are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act and that bullying or harassing the predators is not permitted, unless the wolf poses a threat to human security.

Collared wolves have migrated north of I-40 only a few times since 2015, when the experimental area for Mexican wolf populations was established, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

One of the better documented cases involved a wolf that was captured, relocated and later found dead after migrating back north. In 2022, there were reports that another woman lived west of Albuquerque for months before moving to Arizona and then back to southwest New Mexico.

In the latter case, wolf number 2754 was expelled from the Rocky Prairie pack in late 2022.

“We are monitoring the movements of f2754 as we work with our partners to evaluate management options,” agency spokeswoman Aislinn Maestas said on Tuesday.

Environmentalists have been fighting in federal court to overturn a requirement that the Fish and Wildlife Service capture wolves roaming north of I-40.

In court documents, environmental groups have argued that using the Interstate as the northern boundary for wolf recreation effectively curbs natural spread and cuts off access to the Grand Canyon and Southern Rockies. They indicated that the two regions are essential for establishing another population to meet recovery goals.

The Mexican wolf is the rarest gray wolf subspecies in North America. According to the most recent survey, released in early 2022, there were at least 196 Mexican wolves in the wild in New Mexico and Arizona. It was the sixth consecutive year that the population had increased.

There is also a small population of wolves in the wild in Mexico.

U.S. officials said they are preparing to begin this year’s survey in Arizona and New Mexico in the coming weeks.