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New Mexico man pleads guilty in wolf death

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP)--A southern New Mexico man pleaded guilty Aug. 26 to a charge stemming from the death of a Mexican gray wolf that had been released into the wild as part of a reintroduction program.

Alan Van Hout, 52, appeared in federal court in Albuquerque to enter his plea to a misdemeanor charge of unlawfully possessing a Mexican gray wolf, an animal protected by the federal Endangered Species Act.

The U.S. attorney's office said Van Hout shot and killed the wolf on Aug. 6, 2008, and tried to hide the carcass from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the lead agency in the wolf reintroduction effort.

Norm Cairns, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, said Van Hout wasn't charged with shooting the wolf because he claimed he didn't know it was a Mexican gray wolf when he shot it.

Wolves that are released as part of the program are fitted with tracking devices. Cairns said the wolf that was shot by Van Hout had a tracking device.

As part of a plea agreement, Van Hout faces up to six months in jail and he must forfeit any interest in the rifle that he used to kill the wolf. A sentencing hearing has not yet been scheduled.

There was no telephone listing for Van Hout in New Mexico.

The Mexican wolf, a subspecies of the gray wolf, was exterminated in the wild in the Southwest by the 1930s. In 1998, the government began reintroducing wolves along the Arizona-New Mexico line in a 4 million acre-plus territory interspersed with forests, private land and towns.

There are now about 50 wolves in the wild, but that's half of what biologists had hoped to have by now.

The program has been hampered by illegal shootings, complaints from ranchers who have lost cattle to the wolves and removal of wolves that have violated the program's three-strikes rule. Federal agents can kill or trap and remove any wolf that has been involved in three livestock kills within a year.

Earlier this year, Fish and Wildlife Southwest regional director Benjamin Tuggle said the program's numbers would have been higher had it not been for the illegal shooting of five wolves and the "suspicious demise'' of two others in 2008. He called the illegal taking of wolves a "big concern'' for the agency.

Tuggle, in a news release issued late Aug. 26, said Van Hout's prosecution was important and that the agency's law enforcement officers would continue to "aggressively investigate all illegal activities that impact our efforts to restore a healthy population of Mexican wolves in the wild.''

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