Ranchers in wolf country call in USDA’s Wildlife Services whenever they find dead or injured livestock that they think might have been caused by a Mexican gray wolf. Wildlife Services’ agents go out to the site, collect evidence, look for signs of predators like pawprints and fur, measure any bite marks on the animal’s hide, and otherwise assess the scene to determine whether wolves or other predators are the culprit. If the investigators confirm that wolves are responsible, the livestock owner can take the investigation report to the livestock compensation board and be reimbursed with taxpayer dollars for their lost cattle or horses.
These investigation reports are also provided to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal agency tasked with recovering the endangered Mexican gray wolf in the southwest United States. The Fish and Wildlife Service uses these reports to determine where ongoing conflicts are occurring, and then “manages” the wolves through hazing, relocation, live captures and lethal removals. Western Watersheds Project disagrees with the premise that wolves should ever be removed for livestock predations on public lands, but it’s still critically important that the investigations used to tally wolf impacts are accurate, reliable and honest.
Right now, they aren’t. Over the past year, Western Watersheds Project has reviewed hundreds of these investigation reports obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, and the methods Wildlife Services uses to confirm wolf kills are questionable at best. The “evidence” contained in the reports is often sketchy, speculative and insufficient to support the conclusions. Sometimes there is literally nothing left but a scrap of hide or a few bones, or a few bite marks whose dimensions overlap with coyotes, mountain lions and feral dogs. Sometimes there are no canid tracks in the area, and sometimes the estimated time of death was months prior to the investigation. Sometimes the only supporting “evidence” is that wolves have been in the area around the same time. Occasionally, Wildlife Services is unable to be on site and instead adopts the word of the Catron County wolf investigator, as was the case during the government shutdown of 2019.
While it’s certainly true that wolves can and do kill livestock – which, to be fair, compete with and displace wolves’ native prey species – it’s not at all clear that Mexican gray wolves kill as frequently as the Wildlife Services’ investigation reports would lead us to believe.
It’s also unclear why there are so many more depredation events in New Mexico than there are in Arizona, given that the wolf population is almost evenly distributed across the states and livestock grazing occurs nearly everywhere the wolves currently roam. Is it that New Mexico’s ranchers are more negligent in putting their livestock at risk of wolf predation, or could it be that confirmation bias is prevalent among the wolf investigators in New Mexico? Is the anti-wolf Catron County wolf investigator influencing the outcome? Or all of the above?
About two-thirds of the reports we’ve reviewed contain sufficient inconsistencies, logical leaps and conflicting details to warrant independent investigation. These same reports have already resulted in the removal of wolves from the wild, the disruption of packs and destabilization of breeding pairs, and an outsized hostility toward the native predator trying to regain its rightful place on the landscape.
Agencies with an anti-wolf or anti-wildlife bias should be prohibited from participating in future investigations into livestock conflict. Compensation programs should require more than the appearance of wolf involvement but instead demand fact-based evidence. All of the people involved need to play fair with the facts, and the public needs a full investigation into the discrepancies we’ve documented and real answers to the questions we’ve asked. The future of the Mexican wolf recovery program depends on it.
This Guest Column was published in the Albuquerque Journal.
Please take a stand for Mexican wolf recovery
with a letter to the editor!
The letters to the editor page is one of the most widely read, influential parts of the newspaper. One letter from you can reach thousands of people and will also likely be read by decision-makers. Tips and talking points for writing your letter are below, but please write in your own words, from your own experience.
- Wolves account for less than 0.2% of all cattle losses. At last count, there were 163 wolves in the wild across Arizona and New Mexico. According to the US Dept. of Agriculture, there are 2.5 million cattle in Arizona and New Mexico.
- The livestock industry has a responsibility to share public lands with wolves and other wildlife. Wolves are responsible for less than 1% of livestock losses in New Mexico and there are many tried and true methods to avoid conflicts between livestock and wolves.
- There are many solutions to conflicts between livestock and wolves. There are very few Mexican gray wolves. Livestock businesses on public lands are reimbursed for losses and can receive government and non-profit assistance for non-lethal measures to avoid depredation. They have a responsibility to do so. Deterrents to livestock conflicts are the solution, not removing more endangered Mexican wolves.
- Catron County, New Mexico is a hotbed of wolf-livestock conflict and strong opposition to wolf recovery. In fact, the total number of incidents and depredations reported over the last 12 months shows Catron County recorded more than twice as many reports as any other County in the Recovery area. One can’t help but wonder what are the ranchers in other areas doing that Catron County ranchers aren’t doing to reduce conflicts.
- The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a legal and moral obligation to recover endangered Mexican gray wolves. Killing wolves is in direct conflict of this directive. And it perpetuates a failed policy of scapegoating wolves who occasionally prey on. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should prioritize getting the livestock moved instead.
- The wild population of Mexican wolves suffers from declining genetic health, resulting from too many removals and too few releases from the captive breeding population.
LETTER WRITING TIPS
Make sure you:
- Thank the paper for this article and make sure to reference it in your LTE.
- Submit your letter as soon as possible. The chance of your letter being published declines after a day or two since the article was published.
- Keep your message positive, but firm in your support for lobo recovery.
- Keep your letter brief, no more than 300 words. Letters will be edited for space and clarity.
- Include something about who you are and why you care: E.g. “I am a mother, outdoors person, teacher, business owner, scientific, religious, etc.” Don’t be afraid to be personal and creative.
- 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.