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Will the Feds Start Trapping and Shooting Mexican Gray Wolves Once More?

Middle Fork, San Mateo and Dark Canyon packs at risk

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The summer monsoon rains have arrived late on the Gila National Forest, scarcely abating the drought, but seemingly everywhere bony-ribbed cows seek what little forage is starting to emerge, competing with elk for grass.

The Middle Fork pack, led by two three-legged alpha wolves, roams the Elk and Canyon Creek mountains and Cooney Prairie where five previous wolf packs were successively trapped and gunned down by the feds.  Many if not all of those now-terminated packs began preying on cattle after first scavenging on the carcasses of cattle that died of non-wolf causes, such as starvation and disease.  Recently, members of the Middle Fork pack have killed cattle, as have the San Mateo and Dark Canyon packs and unknown wolves elsewhere, as well.  Stock owners are indemnified for their losses.

Federal trapping and shooting of Mexican wolves, until three years ago, brought this unique subspecies back to the brink of extinction even after last-ditch captive breeding and reintroduction was undertaken to save it from previous federal persecution.  The Mexican wolf population has only now begun to recover from removals during the first ten years of the reintroduction program, and can ill-afford more bullets or hidden steel traps.

Please write Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar to urge him to continue ongoing proactive efforts to deter wolves from preying on livestock, implement unheeded recommendations by scientists to require livestock operators using public lands to render inedible (as by lime) carcasses of stock that die of non-wolf causes, and most importantly, not to begin trapping or shooting Mexican wolves once again.  Please cc. your U.S. representative and senators.

Mexican Wolf Genetics Dangerously Narrowed Because So Few Survive

At last count earlier this year, just 50 highly-endangered Mexican gray wolves roamed a small portion of New Mexico and Arizona.  These wolves all stem from just seven individual animals that were the only survivors of a ruthless federal extermination program that killed all wolves in the western United States by the 1940s, and then exported government-produced poisons and federal employees to set up the same systematic wolf “control” program in the Republic of Mexico beginning in 1950.  The last three of these seven wolves were caught in Mexico between 1977 and 1980 for emergency captive breeding to save their type from extinction, and none are known to survive in the wild in Mexico. 

Last year, these 50 wolves included just two breeding pairs.  (There are potentially as many as eight or nine breeding pairs this year, but some wolves may have lost pups to the Bearwallow Fire in Arizona, and even without human threats, there is no guarantee that pups survive; we will have an official count of 2011 wolves and pups in January 2012.)  Litter sizes and pup survival rates have gone down due to inbreeding depression because there are not enough non-related mates to be found for wolves in the wild.  The captive population is not suffering from inbreeding depression, but is on trajectory toward other genetic ill-effects.

The Mexican gray wolf is teetering on the brink, and not just because of its narrow brush with extinction during an unenlightened era decades ago.  After 1998, when some of the progeny of those last seven survivors were reintroduced to the Apache and Gila national forests, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reverted to its past history and resumed persecuting Mexican wolves under the guise of recovery.

Reintroduction Program Initially Managed for the Livestock Industry

By 2007, the feds had shot eleven wolves, while eighteen others died accidentally as a consequence of capture, and dozens more were incarcerated indefinitely.  Some wolves were eventually released back into the wild, but in unfamiliar areas, sometimes without their mates, other times missing limbs that had to be cut off due to injuries from the federal trapping.

The victims included the San Mateo Pack’s alpha male, shot from the air on February 20, 2007 for killing three head of cattle, including a calf that was on Gila National Forest land that was seasonally closed to grazing; policy at the time called for killing wolves that committed three or more depredations on “lawfully present” stock, but Fish and Wildlife Service killed this wolf despite conservationists pointing out that important caveat.

Another victim was the Saddle Pack alpha male, who Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledged beforehand was genetically irreplaceable, shot by a federal sharpshooter on July 11, 2004 over two months after his last depredation and after he had been spotted feeding on an elk – a particularly unnecessary and punitive killing.

Saving Wolves Has a Surprising Benefit: Fewer Cows Claimed by Wolves

From 2008 to the present, as a result of public outrage, scientists’ pleas, conservationist groups’ litigation, and the objections of (former) New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and the New Mexico Game and Fish Department, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has refrained from authorizing the removal of any wolves from the wild in response to depredations.  (Wolves have been removed for veterinary reasons.  In addition, Fish and Wildlife Service rules require removal from the wild alive of any reintroduced Mexican wolves that establish territories wholly outside of the Gila and Apache national forests and outside of adjoining private or tribal lands whose owners or managers request that the wolves be allowed to stay, such as the White Mountain Apache Tribe that has welcomed wolves to their Fort Apache Indian Reservation; the Fish and Wildlife Service has acknowledged that this provision of its rule is counterproductive and at odds with its management of wolves and other wildlife elsewhere, but has delayed revising the rule for a decade, so it is still in effect.)

Although wolf depredations steadily increased while wolves were being removed, the opposite occurred when the removals ceased.  Counter-intuitively, depredations decreased after removals ended:

Year  

End-of-year wolf population    

Confirmed fatal livestock depredations        

Number of  wolves removed

2003

55

4

2

2004

44-48

8

1

2005

35-49

22

6

2006

59

28

14

2007

52

36

16

2008

52

21

0

2009

42

16

3 (not for depredations)

2010

50

9

0


Why?  It is instructive that in 2007 High Country News reported that a ranch employee boasted to their reporter that he had brought a pregnant cow about to give birth to the vicinity of a wolf den on the Gila National Forest, which he located through a U.S.-government-issued telemetry receiver programmed to track the signals from the wolves’ radio-collars, and branded the cow there, creating an olfactory lure, in order to lure the wolves to depredate and be killed in turn.  That is exactly what happened after wolves killed the cow and newborn calf that night; the feds shot the alpha female of the Durango Pack on July 5, 2007 (and her mate and pup subsequently disappeared).  The cow and calf were reimbursed but the existence of the wolf-control program served as incentive to orchestrate a depredation.  (After the High Country News article appeared, the ranch-hand denied making the statements attributed to him.)

The Threat Today

Grazing on steep slopesToday, the livestock industry continues to push for the removal of all wolves from the wild.  Representative Steve Pearce (R-NM) has taken the same stance, and New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez appointed game commissioners who not only withdrew the state game department’s participation from the Mexican wolf reintroduction program, but in remarks before their vote disparaged the effort to save these unique animals from extinction. 

Furthermore, poor husbandry practices and severe overstocking of a drought-stricken southwestern landscape have rendered cattle even more vulnerable and displaced elk from lands they need to graze.

The Obama administration seems too eager to strike deals with its Republican critics, including in reducing protections for wolves outside the Southwest.  The Fish and Wildlife has bent time and again to the pressure to shoot and trap wolves.  The peril is clear. 

Please write Interior Secretary Ken Salazar (and cc. your U.S. representative  and senators) to urge him not to resume federal trapping and shooting of Mexican gray wolves.

Thank you, for the wolves.

Caption, bottom photo:
Steep slope grazing: Cattle graze on the precipitous side of a slope that is beginning to recover from a 2006 fire, because the forage in the creek bottom below has already been consumed, within the home range of the Dark Canyon Pack in the Gila National Forest, July 2011.