The remains of the dead cow were found early last year in the bottom of a canyon on National Forest land near Reserve, New Mexico.
All that was left was a wadded scrap of dried hide that investigators photographed then collected from the rocky ground at the base of a pinyon pine tree.
They had to soak the skin for weeks before it was soft enough for them to find tooth marks on it.
The size of the bite and the location of the hide was all the confirmation they needed. As far as the federal government was concerned, this 4-year-old cow was killed by a Mexican gray wolf.
Advocates for the endangered predator aren’t convinced.
An ongoing analysis by the environmental group Western Watersheds Project is raising questions about these livestock depredation investigations, which are being used to compensate ranchers and target “problem” wolves in Arizona and New Mexico.
The group documented significant oddities, errors or conflicting details in more than two-thirds of the 117 investigations it reviewed from 2019.
Greta Anderson, Tucson-based deputy director of the group, said she found numerous “confirmed” cases of wolves preying on cattle based on “clear logical leaps” and a stunning lack of evidence.
She said wolves may be paying for such inaccuracies with their lives.
In March alone, government hunters killed four wolves in New Mexico under federal “removal orders” that cited repeated attacks on livestock in the area.
“We want to make sure if wolves are being blamed that it’s true,” Anderson said. “We have a lot of questions. We don’t have a bunch of conclusions.”
BACK FROM THE BRINK BUT STILL ENDANGERED
The Mexican gray wolf was once common throughout portions of the southwestern United States and Mexico, but by the 1970s it had been hunted, trapped and poisoned to near-extinction.
In 1998, state and federal wildlife managers began reintroducing the subspecies to the wild with the experimental release of 11 captive-bred wolves in Eastern Arizona and Western New Mexico.
There are now at least 163 of the endangered animals roaming the two states, according to the latest population count completed in January. That’s an increase of 24% over the previous year.
But the wolf’s future remains very much in doubt. Despite recent gains, the population still faces a “genetic crisis” caused by its low numbers and inbreeding.
“This is one of the most imperiled species in the country,” said Cyndi Tuell, Arizona and New Mexico director for Western Watersheds Project. “Everytime they take a wolf out of the wild and kill it, they reduce those genetics even more.”
The Mexican wolf recovery program is a cooperative effort by nine federal, state and tribal agencies. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service leads the interagency team.
The Wildlife Services branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture investigates livestock deaths and removes wolves when necessary.
Wildlife Services declined a request to interview its director in New Mexico, Robert Gosnell.
In an email response to questions, agency spokeswoman Tanya Espinosa said Wildlife Services tries to conduct its investigation within 24 hours of being notified of a livestock loss.
In addition to identifying “the wildlife species responsible for specific damage,” agency employees “provide advice, recommendations, information, or materials for use in managing problems associated with wildlife damage,” Espinosa said.
Wildlife Services received funding this year to hire “nonlethal conflict prevention specialists,” she said, and “part of that work will be focused on areas with Mexican gray wolf conflicts.”
ATTACKS ON CATTLE SPIKE, PROMPTING MORE “REMOVALS”
Brady McGee is Mexican wolf recovery coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service, a job he’s held since October 2018. When a decision is made to catch or kill a wolf, he is the one who signs the order.
“Ultimately, it’s my decision,” McGee said. “Wolf removal is a last resort.”
He said a number of factors go into it, including the animal’s genetic contribution to the population at large. But he conceded that the “basis of the removal orders are livestock depredations.”
Some wolves are killed. Others are captured alive — usually in leg traps or with tranquilizer darts fired from a helicopter — so they can be kept in captivity or moved to other parts of the massive experimental release area.
Relocating wolves can be a juggling act, since so much of the release area is open to grazing during at least some part of the year.
“In New Mexico, livestock are grazing on the Gila National Forest year round,” smack in the middle of some of the best Mexican gray wolf habitat there is, McGee said.
“New Mexico is the only state in the country where there are wolves overlapping with livestock year round,” he said. “We try to find a balance and alleviate the impact on the livestock industry as much as possible.”
According to McGee, there were 100 cases of wolves killing livestock along the Arizona-New Mexico border in 2018. Last year, that number jumped to 193, including 124 in New Mexico.
“Right now we’re on an equivalent pace,” he said. “March and April have been a hard time.”
March especially saw a “spike in depredations,” mostly in New Mexico, McGee said.
Much of the recent damage has been blamed on the Prieto pack, a group that once included one alpha male, one alpha female and four or five juvenile “helpers.”
After a string of livestock attacks last year, McGee ordered the removal of several of the helpers. When the problem persisted, he sanctioned the killing of the alpha male and one additional helper.
“We’ve been working this pack for a couple of years,” he said. “The ranch in that area is experiencing a lot of hardship.”
A SEARCH FOR PATTERNS TURNS UP HOLES
Western Watersheds’ position on such removals is clear.
“We don’t believe wolves should be killed for being wolves. We don’t believe any predator should be killed for preying on prey in their public lands habitat,” Anderson said. “It’s really the livestock operators that are the problem for wolves, not the other way around.”
So far, the Idaho-based environmental group has received almost 2,600 pages of federal investigation reports through a Freedom of Information Act request filed last year.
Tuell said they didn’t set out to poke holes in the investigations. The original purpose of their public records request was to analyze livestock losses in search of patterns, problem areas and possible solutions to prevent future conflicts.
“We were intent on figuring out how this was happening,” she said.
They also hoped to use location data for specific packs to independently evaluate the management decisions being made by the wolf’s federal caretakers.
But the records contained too many unknowns for such detailed analysis, Tuell said. Citing privacy and other concerns, the government redacted key details in the documents, including the names of the individual investigators and the ranchers involved.
Officials also blacked out the exact locations where the dead animals were found and other details that could be used to identify specific livestock operations.
Despite the redactions, Tuell and Anderson managed to identify some patterns in the documents. The same key phrases showed up over and over, suggesting the work of a single person or the use of a shared template. In a handful of reports, the investigating officer described finding “an extensive fight scene” and noted that other cows in the area seemed “nervous.”
“I have questions about a lot of these,” Anderson said.
ADVOCATES QUESTION INCONSISTENCIES, WORRY ABOUT BIAS
In one case, a single bone from a calf and the dried husk of cow that had been dead for as much as a year were chalked up as two confirmed wolf kills. In another, wolves were blamed even though the week-old carcass was too badly decomposed to find bite marks.
Anderson said the records contain a host of similar livestock deaths that were all ruled as “confirmed” based almost entirely on telemetry data showing collared wolves in the general vicinity.
Advocates also spotted regional disparities in the records.
Anderson said wolves are “pretty evenly distributed” in Arizona and New Mexico. So why are there so many more confirmed cases of wolves killing livestock in New Mexico, particularly in Catron County, a hotbed of opposition to wolf recovery efforts?
One possible explanation is that local politics is influencing investigations. Anderson said blaming wolves for every livestock loss is a way to sabotage the overall recovery effort by convincing policy makers that the program is hurting rural residents.
To that end, Anderson and Tuell flagged investigations conducted by local authorities during the federal government shutdown in January 2019.
Anderson said there seemed to be a surge in livestock attacks at that time, and a lot of those confirmed wolf kills occurred in Catron County.
Though those reports reportedly underwent “peer review” by Wildlife Services after the fact, Anderson said she worries that the findings may have been skewed since “the government wasn’t able to investigate these things in real time.”
Catron County conducts its own depredation investigations using a dedicated investigator employed by the sheriff’s office — the only county in New Mexico or Arizona that does so.
County officials have taken a hard-line stance against wolf reintroduction, passing a series of emergency ordinances that broadly define what a “problem predator” is and allow sheriff’s deputies to kill wolves that pose an imminent threat to people.
The rural county even drafted a special “predator-human interactions complaint form” to document cases in which “the behavior of a predator has a direct physical or mental effect upon a human.”
RANCHERS CAN SEEK COMPENSATION FOR LIVESTOCK LOST TO WOLVES
It could be that wolves get blamed for more problems in Catron County because people there don’t want the predators around, or it could be that people don’t want the predators around because they cause more problems there than they do anywhere else.
McGee said the majority of the wolves living in New Mexico can be found in Catron County, though that might not entirely explain why so many of the attacks on livestock seem to happen there. He said there are “depredation hot spots” in some areas, while in others wolf packs and livestock roam the same land throughout the year with little to no conflicts.
“We haven’t figured that out yet,” he said.
Ranch owners never like to lose their livestock, of course, but some forms of depredation are better than others.
McGee said there is a federal grant program, established in 2009, that specifically covers wolf damage to cows, sheep, goats, pigs, horses and even working dogs. The livestock depredation reports prepared by Wildlife Services are often submitted as proof when ranchers apply for reimbursement.
McGee said ranchers are eligible to receive full, fair market value for animals lost in confirmed wolf attacks. They only get back half of an animal’s value in the case of “a probable wolf kill,” he said.
Advocates worry that such a system creates a financial incentive for livestock operators to blame wolves for every attack, while unfairly compensating ranchers who don’t do enough to avoid conflicts with predators, especially on public land.
Tuell said ranching operations like that are “setting the wolves up for failure.”
Of course, even the best management practices can’t completely eliminate livestock losses. Wolves will still kill from time to time. “It happens, certainly,” Anderson said.
That’s why thorough investigations are so important, she said. It’s the only way to identify real, ongoing conflicts with livestock operators and ensure that wolf packs are not being unfairly blamed — and punished — for attacks by other predators, including coyotes, feral dogs, bears and mountain lions.
Federal officials involved in the wolf recovery effort should want that, too, Anderson said.
“For a program that is struggling, with political pressure from both directions, we need to have really clear answers,” she said. “We have more questions than answers.”
Contact reporter Henry Brean at firstname.lastname@example.org or 520-573 4283. On Twitter: @RefriedBrean
The US Fish & Wildlife Service killed off an entire pack when they removed the last wolf from the Prieto Pack. They’re justification was the predation reports that Western Watershed Project went through. These reports are filled with questionable logic, evidence, and reason for eliminating wild Mexican wolves. Take action today and write a letter to the editor.
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 200 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.
Mexican gray wolves, or lobos, represent a great test case of the Endangered Species Act and how the federal government treats native wildlife more broadly. Wolves are vilified by a vocal minority, despite science and data showing they pose almost no threat to humans and impact livestock far less than health problems, weather, birthing fatalities, or theft. Lobos have the capacity to re-wild their historic range and help to heal imperiled and fragile ecosystems and biodiversity in the desert southwest. That is, if they are allowed to.
Despite our reputation in some circles, WildEarth Guardians doesn’t love to litigate. But we do love lobos and that’s why we continue to rely on the legal system to protect this critical animal. This unique endangered species has only gotten a real chance to repopulate the wilds of New Mexico and Arizona via the courtroom. Since 1998, fitful moves toward true recovery have been spurred by lawsuits from such groups as WildEarth Guardians, and stunted by federal agencies – at the behest of backwards state wildlife agencies and a narrow set of private interests – unwilling to do what is necessary for true lobos recovery.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is now at the beginning of a rulemaking process that represents an opportunity to finally do the right thing. A federal judge found a slew of issues in the agency’s 2015 management rule and concluded that it “fails to further the recovery of the Mexican wolf.” The agency was told to go back to the drawing board and rewrite the rule. The scoping period for that rulemaking began last month, but already there are serious warning signs.
Scoping – soliciting feedback and ideas from a broad range of stakeholders – is done to determine the range of issues that should be examined in a rulemaking process. In order to comply with the court order, USFWS should be starting at ground zero in rewriting this rule. Unfortunately, the agency has signaled that it is willing to skip steps in order to prop up the interests of those few who are irrationally opposed to seeing native lobos recover throughout their historic range. Instead of following the best available science, it appears that the process will lean heavily on the discredited, state-sponsored, anti-wolf science behind the Trump administration’s deeply flawed 2017 recovery plan, which is being litigated itself.
A transparent and thorough process would not only follow the court’s order to rely on the best available science, but also truly involve broad public input. In these challenging times, that may require flexibility, including lengthening the comment period and taking additional steps to ensure that rural Americans – especially those who live in wolf country – have a genuine opportunity to have their voices heard. But, if recent history provides any clues, public input – and therefore public values – may be relegated behind the interests of a powerful few, the pattern of most public processes carried out by the Trump administration.
If USFWS appropriately values public sentiment and is guided by the best, independent science, lobos stand to make serious gains. A science-based rule would promote more releases of adult wolves into the wild to diversify the genetics of the population. It would limit lethal and non-lethal “removal” policies that have crippled wolf recovery. It would engage ranchers using public lands to do more to reduce conflict and foster coexistence. It would address rampant poaching, which is a huge obstacle to lobo recovery. And, finally, a science-based rule would designate the only wild population of Mexican gray wolves in the United States as “essential” for species recovery.
That’s what the science indicates will lead to real recovery. And that’s what the American public wants. We want to see the real recovery of lobos. And we want it done without litigation.
Christoper Smith, of Santa Fe, is the southern Rockies wildlife advocate for WildEarth Guardians. Christoper gave a presentation on lobo genetics last week. You can see his presentation HERE.
This Guest Column was published in the Albuquerque Journal.
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