By LISA DUNLAP Roswell Daily Record
More Mexican gray wolves can be introduced into New Mexico next year following approval from a state commission and in spite of continued concerns about the economic losses that wolf populations cause ranchers.
Members of the New Mexico State Game Commission voted unanimously during a Friday meeting in Roswell to approve a department recommendation allowing up to 12 new wolf pups to be released into the Gila National Forest and Gila Wilderness of New Mexico and parts of Arizona in 2019 as part of a plan to boost the endangered species’ population numbers in the United States.
The commission also voted to permit a female gray wolf to be imported from another state to the Ladder Ranch in Caballo, N.M., which breeds wolf pups in captivity for release into existing wild dens if biologists determine that the wolves, which must be 14 days old or younger, will be compatible with known packs and will provide needed genetic diversity.
“I think the best thing possible from my perspective is to get the species delisted so the state can take over management,” said Stewart Liley, Wildlife Management Division chief, about how to balance the species’ conservation with livestock protection.
He said that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does not have the same experience in predator control, whereas the state department historically has worked with ranchers and property owners to investigate and deal with predation.
Liley also told commissioners that the state department currently has no “on the ground” management authority regarding the wild wolves or the compensation owed to ranchers for kills. That authority rests with the federal Fish and Wildlife Service.
The federal agency, working with Game and Fish departments in New Mexico and Arizona, has been involved in a gray wolf recovery plan since 1982, with reintroductions of wolves starting in 1998. Previously state game departments had poisoned or trapped the wolves, given their predator behaviors and the livestock losses experienced by ranchers. As a result, the subspecies of the gray wolf was considered near extinction, and it was placed on the federal Endangered Species List in 1976.
Kohl Studdard of Roswell, who owns a ranch in the Apache Creek area of Catron County, told commissioners that the wolf continues to cause significant livestock losses.
“Wolves are putting ranchers out of business, literally,” he said. “There are hundreds of kills.”
Studdard said that compensation for lost animals can take eight to 10 months and will be made only if the Fish and Wildlife Service confirms that the kill was due to the wolf. He described confirmation as a difficult task given that missing calves or steers might not be found right away on rugged territory and that other animals often have eaten from the carcasses, leaving little evidence for Fish and Wildlife staff to examine. He said he personally has had eight confirmed livestock losses due to the wolf, with another two under investigation, since buying the ranch two years ago.
Just as Studdard believes from experience that the actual number of depredations in New Mexico is far higher than the official 2018 count of 62 confirmed kills, he also said that the actual number of wolves in the Gila forest and wilderness is much higher than the number of collared wolves counted by the Fish and Wildlife Service and the state game departments.
The official “minimum” number stood at 84 in Arizona and New Mexico at the end of October, according to a monthly status report of the Mexican Wolf Interagency Field Team. That is down from the 114 minimum count at the end of 2017.
Studdard agreed that the best option is to let the state manage New Mexico wolf populations.
“I want to see the state manage them and remove the ones that are causing so many depredations,” he said.
A U.S. Fish and Wildlife coordinator said that the agency strives to reduce impacts on ranchers and others.
“One of my primary goals is to reduce livestock conflicts, and we have several tools to do that,” said Brady McGee, who recently took the position of coordinator for Mexican wolf recovery for the federal agency.
He explained that the agency seeks to move predator wolves away from livestock or to trap and relocate them or to kill them when no other options exist.
“We also have the livestock assistance fund that will compensate ranchers for their losses. Part of the issue is that it is the federal government, so it takes a while for payments to be processed,” he said.
He said he agrees that both the wolf and kill numbers are greater than the official numbers.
“We think we have collars on 70 percent of the wolves on the ground,” McGee said. “There may be packs that we don’t know about. We are trying to work with both the Arizona Game and Fish and New Mexico Game and Fish to determine through camera studies whether there are more out there that we don’t know about and also to look at impacts on the prey sources such as the elk populations.”
He said the state’s severe drought conditions made 2018 a “hard year all around.” Drought likely led to wolf mortalities as well as increased livestock kills as the wolves’ preferred wildlife prey became more scarce.
The commission decided not to vote immediately on two other matters concerning the state’s recovery plan, permission to remove a sister wolf if a sister-brother wolf pair have been found to have formed a mating couple, and permission to disperse or remove wolves that have moved outside permitted areas. Because those situations do not exist at the current time, Commission Chair Paul Kienzle III said that the department could come to commissioners as needed to vote specifically on those issues if necessary.
Prior to their vote, Kienzle and commission member Ralph Ramos urged the New Mexico Game and Fish Department to devote more man-hours to the project, gather more data and provide more public information. Saying he was not criticizing the department, Kienzle explained that the state is now in its second year of implementing the 2017 recovery plan and that he wanted more specifics and more indications of actions taken and results. He said he would follow up with Department Director Michael Sloane and Liley regarding more staff time for the effort.
The New Mexico department also was authorized to release 12 pups in 2018. Eight were released, six in New Mexico and two in Arizona. One has been confirmed alive. One has been confirmed killed, but the exact cause has not yet been determined, and the whereabouts of the other six are unknown.
Mexico, the primary native habitat of the subspecies, is also involved in recovery and reintroduction efforts. Several criteria must be met for the Mexican wolf to be delisted, including that its minimum populations must average at least 320 in the United States and 200 in Mexico over an eight-year period.
Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 311, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.