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In the News: Public Battle Over Wolves Takes Center Stage at T or C Meeting

The Silver City Daily Press, Benjamin Fisher, August 15, 2014

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The public battle of the lobo waged on at the final hearing on the revised proposed rule change for the Mexican gray wolf recovery program in Truth or Consequences on Wednesday evening.

More than 200 people crowded into the Truth or Consequences Community Center to add their voices to comments on the new version of the rule. The rule change would expand the Mexican gray wolves’ recovery area from the original Blue Range area in the Apache National Forest in Arizona and the Gila National Forest in New Mexico to include all areas south of Interstate 40 and north of the border with Mexico in both states. It would also expand the list of circumstances in which a person would be allowed to “take" or kill a wolf.

“We are trying to protect and recover these wolves," said Tracy Melbihess of the Fish and Wildlife Service during the opening presentation of the evening, “but we’re trying to do it in a balanced way that takes into account the people who are affected by the wolf."

The reintroduction and recovery of the Mexican gray wolf has been fraught with dissension and conflict since its inception in 1998, leading to innumerable harsh words and more than a few killings of wolves, both legally and otherwise, in the meantime.

In that time, the projected number of wolves in the wild has been seriously undershot by reality, leaving only 83 wolves in the current area of the Apache and Gila forests.

The new proposal would split the new recovery area into three zones, each with different rules on reintroduction or translocations, and on moving or killing wolves interacting with livestock and people in different ways.

Zone 1 expands the initial areas in which wolves can be reintroduced from captivity from just the Apache and Gila forests to include the Sitgreaves National Forest, the Magdalena Ranger District of the Cibola National Forest, and three ranger districts in the Tonto National Forest in Arizona.

Zone 2 surrounds the areas of Zone 1 and will be able to receive translocations of wolves and a very limited possibility of reintroductions.

Very little of the wolf’s natural habitat is found in Zone 3, surrounding Zone 2, so Melbihess said it is likely if the wolves enter these areas, they will be interacting with people closely and likely be moved.

On federal land, the revised rule would allow FWS to issue permits for the “taking" if the wolves are caught in the act of biting, wounding or killing livestock. Under the current rule, these takes would only be permitted if there were six breeding pairs of the wolves in the wild. At this time, only five breeding pairs exist in the wild.

On non-federal land, the revised rule would extend that to include both livestock and non-feral dogs. It would also extend permitting capabilities to state game agencies if they see “unacceptable impacts" of the wolf on native, wild ungulate populations — like elk, deer, bighorn sheep, etc. “Unacceptable impacts" are very loosely defined in the rule.

A person will still be able to kill a wolf at any time in defense of a human life. The rule also allows for “opportunistic harassment" or scaring a wolf away if a person should come across one. Under the rule, FWS could also issue permits for intentional harassment if there has been activity near a person’s property.

Silver City’s Nancy Kaminski, representing the Southwest New Mexico Audubon Chapter, said that the expanded “takes" were too much, as people had found one killed in the Gila just last month.

“We’re still losing wolves to illegal shooting under the current rules," she said. “Increasing takes doesn’t seem conducive to protecting and recovering the wolves."

There are three other alternative proposals to the rule change, No. 2 and No. 3 incorporating parts of Alternate No. 1, No. 4 not changing the rule at all.

The most popular of the alternatives with the largest number of speakers at Wednesday’s hearing is Alternative No. 3, which includes the expanded recovery area from I-40 to the U.S./Mexico border but removes the expanded circumstances in which the wolves can be killed. Almost no one who took the microphone on Thursday thought Alternative No. 3 was good enough as is, though.

Chief among the requested changes to No. 3 was the request that the wolf be changed from an “experimental non-essential population" to essential. According to Melbihess, a population is “essential" if it will face extinction if the wild population dies.

“We strongly oppose the classification of the only wild population of the Mexican gray wolf being called non-essential," said Drew Kerr of Wild Earth Guardians. “How can it be non-essential if it is the only population left?"

Many and more hoped that the increased protection level would stop the killing of the wolves and help natural balance return to the ecosystem.

“A population of wolves will help balance ungulate populations," said David Richman, a retired biologist. “That will decrease animal diseases and help vegetation grow back which has been overeaten by grazing animals."

Pinos Altos resident Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity was perhaps most outraged by the use of telemetry receivers that track collars on tracked wolves by private ranchers.

“Remove the receivers from private hands where they have been flippantly rented out," Robinson said. “You’ve admitted you (FWS) don’t even know who all you’ve given them to. That is stunning irresponsibility from the service that is supposed to be protecting the wolves. That strips a wolf of its anonymity and gives it right to people who want to kill them."

The biggest opponents to the reintroduction are those involved in the ranching industry.

They claim that depredations — loss of livestock to the reintroduced wolf population — are far higher than those counted by the FWS and that their livelihoods are at stake. “We’ve been told wolves would be removed outside their areas before and that has never happened," said Karen Cowen of the New Mexico Woolgrowers. “And do you know how insulting it is to the people in this room for you to say the impact on those of us affected would be insignificant? This is our livelihood."

“When will the depredations end?" asked Chad Smith, CEO of the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau. “This reintroduction is an all-out assault on these ranching families."

The Farm and Livestock Bureau made up the bulk of the opponent column that spoke at the hearing.

Robinson and many others championed the ranchers’ ability to dispose of the corpses of cattle, the smell of which draws wolves in and gives them a taste for the cows. Robinson also said that if a wolf develops a taste for beef because a rancher does not destroy a corpse, then the wolf should not pay with its life for depredations that follow.

Rancher John Diamond, though, explained that finding their dead cattle is nearly impossible.

“That is very remote country out there," he said. “Most of the time we don’t know if a cow has died until much later. We’re already doing all we can just to keep them going as is."

The answer every non-rancher and wolf proponent had to this issue was for the FWS to reimburse the rancher for any animal lost to wolves.

Reimbursement may not be easy, though, as pointed out by many opponents to the recovery program on fiscal grounds. They say that even the current program lacks sufficient funds,so an expansion is foolhardy.

A reimbursement also won’t be enough for many ranchers and other opponents who believe that not only their livestock, but also their children are at risk.

“Our grandfathers eradicated the wolves because they don’t mix with people, like the grizzly, polio and smallpox," said one man.

“Eventually a wolf is going to eat a child," said another.

“When will the fear stop?' asked Smith again. “When a mother sees a wolf stalking her Australian shepherd, it is pretty easy for her to think her child on the swing set is next."

Kacey Hampf, though, pointed out that there have been only two recorded human fatalities by wolves in the last 60 years and those were in Alaska and not from Mexican gray wolves. This statistic was repeated regularly.

Whether Mexican gray wolves have a malicious interest in stalking and eventually feeding on children or not, many in the crowd said that the fear was enough reason not to allow them near people, which they see as inevitable.

“In Luna County, if a wolf comes through, they are going to interact with people," Ira Pearson said. “We don’t have any water in Luna. We also have no elk, very few deer. What are they going to eat or drink if they don’t come to where the people are?"

There may also be some question of the legality of this new recovery area. There has been an ordinance in Sierra County since 1994, for instance, that requires any person who releases a wolf to pay a fine and serve jail time.

“A lot of people forget it is on the books," said Ken Lyon, county commissioner at the time the ordinance was passed, “but that not only represents the will of the people but the law of Sierra County. We expect that to be respected."

Even with these new rules, with attempts to meet each side in the middle, the arguments on both sides remain the same: proponents of the reintroduction want more and more protection and expansion, while opponents — ranchers being the most outspoken — want the wolves restricted and feared. These have been the chief points of view since the Mexican gray wolf was first mentioned in the reintroduction battle and new rules don’t seem to be mending those fences.

Wednesday was the final public hearing on the issue. There is a comment period open until Sept. 23. The deadline for the final decision is Jan. 12, 2015.

Benjamin Fisher may be reached at bfisher@silvercitydailypress.net.

This article was published in The Silver City Daily Press.

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Endangered Mexican Wolves Need Your Help!

With fewer than 90 Mexican gray wolves in the wild, US Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to make changes that could push them closer to extinction or finally help them thrive. The decision will be made in the next few months and they need to hear from you!

Submit a letter to the editor responding to this article and influence decision-makers and thousands of your fellow citizens. Tips and talking points are below, but please write in your own words, from your own experience. Don’t try to include all the talking points in your letter.

Talking points

  • Start by thanking the paper for this article.
  • US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) should move forward with allowing new wolves to be released throughout the larger area proposed.The Mexican gray wolf is the most endangered mammal in the U.S. with only about 83 in the wild.  Additional wolves must be released into the wild now to increase the genetic health of the species. Numerous wolves are in captive breeding facilities around the country, prepared for, and awaiting, release.
  • USFWS should not allow more killing of critically endangered wolves. The draft proposal will push Mexican gray wolves towards extinction by allowing many more of them to be killed under all kinds of justifications. With fewer than 90 in the wild, every wolf is important. These native lobos need more protections, not less.
  • Wolves once lived throughout Arizona and New Mexico and played a critical role in keeping the balance of nature in place. We need to restore this important animal that has been missing for too long. People who care about wolves have an important opportunity to speak out for their recovery through September 23, 2014.  Comments can be submitted electronically here:  http://www.regulations.gov/#!documentDetail;D=FWS-R2-ES-2013-0056-6056.  More information can be found at mexicanwolves.org.
  • Wolves need freedom from boundaries. Given room to roam, the wolves will establish themselves in suitable areas with adequate game. USFWS must change the rules that do not allow wolves to establish new packs and populations in additional areas that are essential to their recovery.
  • Additional populations of Mexican wolves are necessary to their recovery and genetic health, as is the ability for wolves to move between populations. Capturing and moving wolves because they roam beyond an artificial boundary is always a risky business that can result in death or trauma to the wolf.
  • The USFWS should designate Mexican gray wolves as essential. By labeling all of the wild wolves as “nonessential” the USFWS ignores science and the reality of 16 years of experience with reintroducing wolves. The 83 wolves in the wild have up to 5 generations of experience in establishing packs and raising pups and are over 22% of all of the Mexican wolves in the world.The fifth generation wild lobos are not expendable and are essential to recovering this unique subspecies of wolf. 
  • The USFWS needs to quit stalling and complete a comprehensive recovery plan. USFWS admits that their 1982 recovery plan is not scientifically sound and does not meet current legal requirements – yet in its proposed rule USFWS continues to ignore the best available science and the recommendations of its own science recovery planning subgroup.
Make sure you:
  • Thank the paper for publishing the article.
  • Do not repeat any negative messages from the article.  Remember that those reading your letter will not be looking at the article it responds to, so this is an opportunity to get out positive messages about wolf recovery rather than to argue with the original article.
  • Keep your letter brief, between 150-300 words.
  • Include something about who you are and why you care: E.g. “I am a mother, outdoors person, teacher, business owner, scientific, religious, etc.”
  • Provide your name, address, phone number and address.  The paper won’t publish these, but they want to know you are who you say you are.
  • Submit your letter here.

TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THE USFWS PROPOSAL, CLICK HERE.

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