By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) -- Environmentalists on Tuesday accused federal wildlife managers of keeping secret some of the details behind decisions that led to the capture of a female Mexican gray wolf whose pack was blamed for several cattle killings in southwestern New Mexico.
The criticism comes after a public records request by WildEarth Guardians netted hundreds of pages of blacked-out documents.
Nearly 80 percent of the 870 pages released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services were redacted, said Wendy Keefover, director of the group's carnivore protection program.
"It looks like this is a national security threat and they have to hide these records," Keefover said, referring to the stack of black pages. "This is public information, but the federal government simply won't account for the loba's incarceration."
Wildlife Services did not immediately respond to a phone message seeking comment, but the agency noted in a letter to the environmental group that some of the information requested was exempt under the Freedom of Information Act because it included employee opinions and recommendations and other draft documents.
WildEarth Guardians is planning to appeal and is calling for a congressional investigation of the agency's handling of the records request.
WildEarth Guardians requested the documents in August after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ordered the capture of the pack's alpha female. An initial order to have the wolf shot was withdrawn after it sparked public outcry.
The pack has been blamed for six cattle kills, including four that happened outside the wolf recovery boundaries within a four-month period.
WildEarth Guardians had sought to review necropsy results from the cattle deaths along with photographs and other documentation to determine whether the wolves were in fact the culprits.
Carter Niemeyer, a Wildlife Services retiree and the former wolf recovery coordinator for Idaho, reviewed some of the documents. He questioned whether the cause of death in some cases could be accurately determined given that the cow carcasses were decomposed.
Niemeyer said the government should be conducting each investigation with "total clarity" given the controversy surrounding efforts to reintroduce the Mexican gray wolf in the American Southwest.
"I don't think it is unreasonable to provide irrefutable evidence in a form that the public can visualize and understand since these kinds of investigations will always be challenged now and in the future," he said.
WildEarth Guardians has also requested related documents from the Fish and Wildlife Service, but that agency has yet to respond.
A subspecies of the gray wolf, the Mexican wolf was added to the endangered species list in 1976. A captive-breeding program was started and the first batch of wolves was released into the wild in 1998.
Efforts to re-establish the predators in the Southwest have stumbled due to legal battles, illegal shootings and other problems. A survey done at the beginning of the year showed there were at least such 58 wolves in the wild along the New Mexico-Arizona border.
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Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.