The Silver City Daily Press
By Mary Alice Murphy
Special to the Press Catron County residents, at a meeting Thursday afternoon, heard from New Mexico Department of Game and Fish personnel that wolves do not seem to be having a major impact on the elk population of the Gila National Forest.
Steward Liley, NMDGF elk program coordinator, said one of the main purposes of a model was to develop it as a tool in assisting discussions about the biological dynamics of elk and wolves.
The model, first used in 2006, allows the department to track its assumptions to determine if they are in line with what is seen in fall elk surveys and winter wolf surveys. It also seeks input from what department employees, sportsmen, guides, outfitters and area residents see in the field.
Liley cited as limitations that the surveys are broad in scale and do not look at each subherd, so output is a single value for the whole area. No environmental variation is incorporated, nor does the model consider behavioral impacts of wolves on elk, i.e. that the elk tend to leave an area where wolves are located.
Advantages of the model include giving a better understanding of variables in the yearly cycle of an elk; allowing input; and using it as a tool to judge a range of possible outcomes of wolf effects on elk.
The model incorporates three distinct time periods — June to August, September to December, and January to May — to reflect stages in an elk’s year.
June to August is when elk are calving, last year’s calves are recruited into the population as adults, and the majority of mortality events happen for calves. From September to December is hunting season and the majority of mortality happens for adults. This is also when cow elk are bred. During January to May, elk are trying to survive the winter. This is the season for the highest natural mortality of adults.
Liley showed maps of the flight patterns of the 2008 fall elk population surveys, which are generally taken in late September to early October, in the middle of the rut when there is a better mix of bulls and cows.
In 2008, overall numbers of elk were down by 90, with 2,200 elk seen in the western central section of the Gila National Forest.
According to Liley, the calf-to-cow ratio was 45-to-100.
“We would start to worry if the number were 30 or below, because that is what is required to replace the population,” Liley said.
The bull-to-cow ratio was 47-to-100. Liley said the 5 1/2-year-old population was “stable to increasing.”
The department estimates that, throughout the Gila National Forest, about 16,000 elk form the overall population. It is estimated that one to two elk per wolf are killed during the fall season, with the highest mortality due to hunter harvest. During the winter months, the department figures about two elk per month are killed by wolves. During calving season, there is about a 60 percent or higher calf mortality, with predation, the mother’s condition, and drowning in floods in arroyos among the causes of mortality.
The meeting was opened to residents’ questions.
Tom Klumker, outfitter, asked if the base number is two elk per wolf, what number of wolves is used. Liley said the numbers are derived from the yearly wolf survey undertaken by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Klumker alleged that FWS “is not doing a good job collaring pups.”
Matt Wunder, NMDGF Santa Fe Division chief of conservation services, said that because wolves typically travel in groups, the estimate of wolf numbers is “fairly tight.”
Bucky Allred of Glenwood said at least four wolves that have been seen around Glenwood were singles and uncollared.
“My concern is how can the count be accurate if uncollared and single wolves are roaming,” Allred said.
‘We go out and look for tracks,” Wunder said. “They are factored into the final count. We keep close tabs on the wolves that are out there.”
Ellen Heilhecker, NMDGF wolf biologist, said if the wolves can be verified, they are added to the count.
Allred said his greatest concern is the impact of the wolf on the economy.
He cited an incident where a wolf was seen near Glenwood. NMDGF personnel investigated the incident, but did not ask where the wolf had been sighted and reported not seeing evidence of a wolf. When the Catron County wolf investigator investigated the incident, after asking where the wolf had been seen, he found prints and made castings of the wolf tracks.
“The harder you make it for hunters, the harder it is for us to make a living,” Allred said.
Liley said the department has looked at reports of more wolves.
“No model will match what’s on the ground,” he said. “At this time, we can’t see an overall impact on the elk population on a broad scale. Maybe there is impact in a drainage.”
Klumker said every elk killed by a wolf is one less elk for a hunter. Every year that number will increase with more wolves. “Thank God, the numbers of wolves haven’t increased,” he said. “We’d like to see the wolf gone. It’s hitting our pocketbooks hard. I don’t think there’s a place for wolves in our limited elk population. We call (the wolf recovery program) government-sponsored terrorism.”
Liley said the department will continue to promote the wolf, hunting and resource management of the Gila.
“It’s my job to look at the impact on the elk population.” He said. “The Gila has always been a good place to hunt elk.”
Jack Diamond, outfitter, said he has heard horror stories about Yellowstone, with one client telling him he had hunted for 10 days near Yellowstone National Park and did not see a single elk, but only wolf tracks.
“Are you guys looking at what’s happening in other states, such as Wyoming, Montana and Idaho to ensure we don’t have the same problems?” Diamond asked.
Liley said the department is proactive at looking at potential impacts.
Diamond also asked how many wolves will be allowed in the recovery area — 100, 200, 300?
Wunder said it was determined at the beginning of the program that the area could support 100 wolves, “but we were thinking they would feed on mule deer and javelina. The Fish and Wildlife Service realizes it needs to figure out the numbers,” with population limitations of the wolf by area and pack.
According to Wunder, the FWS is also looking at other possible wolf recovery locations, such as White Sands and into Mexico. He said the assessment of numbers will change as the FWS reassesses its 10(j) rule, which is the determination of the nonessential experimental population of wolves.
Wunder said the NMDGF will have input into the final determination and the proposed changes to the 10(j) rule.
“The recovery plan is based on scientific evidence,” Wunder said.
The FWS will ascertain the number of wolves that the area can bear and if it is enough to maintain the population, as well as determining how that number will influence the human-wolf interaction.
Klumker alleged that, because of major environmental groups having “judges in their pockets,” the residents of southwest New Mexico are “pawns in their chess game.”
Diamond encouraged the NMDGF to talk to the FWS and let them know that the area where the Mexican gray wolf program is being implemented is far different from that of Alaska, Wyoming, Montana or Idaho.
“Our ecosystem is extremely fragile,” Diamond said.
Liley said the department would make its recommendations from a game management approach, and that the department “believes it’s a step ahead, but we need to get smarter about our elk. I personally don’t want to see the hunting opportunity decline.”
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It is estimated that one to two elks per wolf are killed during the fall season, with the highest mortality due to hunter harvest. During the winter months, the department figures about two elk per month are killed by wolves. During calving season, there is about a 60 percent or higher calf mortality, with predation, the mother’s condition, and drowning in floods in arroyos among the causes of mortality.
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Garth Simms of the New Mexico Council of Outfitters suggested the NMDGF “get the court battles out of the way early. We need to use a different approach from that used in the northern Rockies,” so the wolves don’t increase as fast and “…destroy our elk herds. You’re the ones who need to be negotiating these things with ( the) Fish and Wildlife (Service).”
Ron Shortes, Catron County attorney, said NMDGF needs to “…be the strong advocate for us with the Fish and Wildlife Service.”
Because Benjamin Tuggle of FWS recently told a group of county residents that he is in control of the wolf program, Shortes said the Department of Game and Fish should tell the FWS that “…wildlife belongs to the people of New Mexico and not to the federal government.”
Shortes also said the U. S. Senate has passed a compensation package for livestock depredation by predators, but that it will likely require a state match, which the state cannot afford.
“The county’s argument is that the wolf program should be stopped, if it can’t be paid for,’ Shortes said.
Allred said wolves do not contribute to the county’s economy and “…they will put us out of business.”
Liley said that with the requirement of hunter harvest reporting, the department has a better idea of how many elk are killed by hunters each year.
“We had an 87 percent report rate in 2007,” Liley said. “That’s about the best in the country.”
He will compile the harvest numbers for 2008 within the next month or so, but said the bull-to-cow ratio seems to be staying about the same.
Klumker said the department needs to know about individual depredation incidents. Liley agreed and said face-to- face talks are the best.
Klumker also reported that the area is getting negative publicity in hunting magazines about the presence of the wolf in the Gila.
“It’s going to get tougher to book an elk hunter once the word gets out,” he said.
Diamond reported that many of his outfitting friends in the northern Rockies are out of business because of wolves decimating the elk herds.
To a question, Wunder assured the residents that comments made in response to a draft assessment of the 10( j) rule are “…not a vote. Fish and Wildlife uses the scoping process to get a full range of issues, look at all of them, and use them in developing options.”
He also said the socio¬economic aspect is one of the “…most expensive parts of the process,” but must be done.
Liley assured the residents that the NMDGF is “…not putting the (wolf-elk) issue on the back burner,” and would continue to give annual updates.