A program to reestablish the Mexican gray wolf in New Mexico and Arizona narrowly dodged a defunding proposal recently. With only 50 of the wolves living in the wild, what kind of protection will they receive?
By Bobby Magill, 3-02-11
Like many outfitters and ranchers in Catron County, New Mexico — one of the counties of the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 70s and 80s — Tom Klumker wants Mexican gray wolves out of the Gila National Forest, where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been releasing the endangered wolves into the wild since 1998.
“They’ve been successful at wiping out a bunch of livestock and hurting a bunch of ranchers,” Klumker said. “As a result, they’ve made a big difference on the livestock industry in Catron County. I don’t think we need them. The early settlers worked very hard to get rid of both the wolf and the grizzly for a very good reason.”
Klumker, based in Glenwood, N.M., is a board member of the vehemently anti-wolf Americans for the Preservation of Western Environment , or APWE, and the Southwest Director of the New Mexico Council of Outfitters and Guides , a group now part of a new Fish and Wildlife Service Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Planning Team. The team will create a new recovery plan that may eventually lead the way to a healthy and sustainable population of Mexican wolves in New Mexico and Arizona.
Whether it’s in New Mexico or the Northern Rockies, efforts to restore native gray wolf populations must face ranchers and sportsmen worried and angry that wolves will prey on their cattle and run elk into places difficult to hunt. And, just as in Montana, whose Democratic senators have introduced a bill to remove federal Endangered Species Act protections from the gray wolf of the Northern Rockies and where Gov. Brian Schweitzer declared in February that the state will not prosecute ranchers who kill wolves that attack livestock, efforts to help the recovery of the gray wolf’s southern counterpart face numerous political challenges.
Smaller and lighter than its Northern Rockies cousin, the Mexican gray wolf is one of five subspecies of gray wolf native to North America. Today, Mexican wolves, which roam the Gila and Apache-Sitgreaves national forests in western New Mexico and eastern Arizona, are the controversial subjects of the Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Program, which began after the species was listed as endangered in 1976.
So far, about the Fish and Wildlife Service has released about 90 wolves since 1998, according to agency data. Today, about 50 Mexican wolves exist in the wild.
Originally, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s goal was to have 100 wolves in the wild by 2006, but because of conflicts with ranchers and the broiling politics surrounding the Mexican wolf’s reintroduction, that goal has yet to be met.
“The idea is to get enough wolves out there where we can step back, get them de-listed, and they can generate their own self-sustaining population, and the states will then have management of them,” said Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Tom Buckley.
The Mexican wolf recovery area straddles the eastern reach of the Mogollon Rim country, where the rim disappears into the remote Blue Range in Catron County, one of New Mexico’s biggest and least populated counties. The lobos’ new turf includes the rugged Gila and Aldo Leopold wilderness areas — together totaling more than 750,000 acres of wilderness broken only by a single unpaved road — and the Blue Range Wilderness and Primitive areas of New Mexico and Arizona.
The deep sense of wildness there is as legendary as the wilderness areas’ founder and namesake — Aldo Leopold, the “Sand County Almanac” author who in the 1920s demanded the U.S. Forest Service protect the Gila region as the nation’s first wilderness area 40 years before the passage of the Wilderness Act.
In those days, there were still wild Mexican wolves roaming the Gila. By the 1970s, they were nearly extinct.
The Mexican wolf was protected under the Endangered Species Act in 1976 and efforts began to reintroduce the wolf into New Mexico and Arizona not to restore balance to the ecosystem, but to simply return an endangered species to the wild as the law demands, said ReWilding Institute carnivore biologist Dave Parsons, a former Fish and Wildlife Service Mexican wolf recovery coordinator.
But the absence of the wolf since the mid-20th Century took its toll on the balance of the ecosystem, he said.
In Yellowstone National Park, the return of the gray wolf has given elk a long-absent predator, providing for healthier aspen stands and riparian vegetation and an ecosystem that supports more bird species than before, he said.
“What we’re seeing in the Gila is very similar, and the riparian vegetation is pretty well gone in a lot of places,” Parsons said.
Researchers working in Yellowstone studied the Mexican wolf reintroduction area in the Southwest and discovered a “reverse trophic cascade where the ecosystem has simplified in the absence of the wolf,” Parsons said. Once some of the wolves were returned to the wild, the health of aspen groves began to improve.
But cattle growers aren’t impressed.
Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, said the lagging Mexican wolf numbers show the program isn’t working, especially as ranchers continue to deal with wolves killing cattle.
Officially, there were 185 confirmed cattle depredations from wolves from 1998 through 2009 in New Mexico and Arizona, said Arizona Department of Game and Fish wolf biologist Jeff Dolphin.
But the real number of depredations, Cowan said, is difficult to nail down because many ranchers fear the level of proof needed to confirm that a wolf killed a cow is so high that they don’t bother to report a suspected killing.
With the Fish and Wildlife Service’s population goals unmet as it dealt with livestock industry concern about widespread cattle depredations, the future of the recovery program remains uncertain.
In February, the program survived an attempt by U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., to de-fund the program for the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year after his amendment was dropped from the continuing resolution that will fund the government for the rest of the year.
In November, a group of 13 Democratic congressmen, including Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, Rep. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico and Rep. Jared Polis of Colorado, asked Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to release 22 captive Mexican wolves into the wild immediately, create a new Mexican wolf recovery plan and complete a draft environmental impact statement allowing changes to the program’s rules that will ensure the Mexican wolf’s full recovery.
Their letter to Salazar claims the Fish and Wildlife Service has been ignoring scientists’ recommendations for the health of the wolves, jeopardizing their viability in the wild.
Cowan said Pearce, long an opponent of the Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Program, has championed the cattle growers’ cause and wants to see the program ended immediately.
Pearce’s press secretary, Eric Layer, said Pearce is concerned mainly with cutting federal spending and reducing the national debt, but he doesn’t know if Pearce will attempt to de-fund the program again as Congress takes up President Obama’s 2012 budget request.
Though the politics of the program may be daunting, some important biological questions vital to the Mexican wolf’s recovery still need to be answered, particularly: How many wolves does it take for the species to fully recover?
“Would it be 100, 200, 500 wolves on the landscape?” said Buckley of the Fish and Wildlife Service.
The new Mexican wolf recovery planning team will attempt to answer that question because a previous plan for the recovery program didn’t, he said.
A 1982 Fish and Wildlife Service plan for the Mexican wolf failed to specify recovery criteria, according to the agency’s 2010 Mexican Wolf Conservation Assessment , which concludes that the wolves now in the wild are threatened by illegal shooting and the lack of an adequate recovery plan.
On Feb. 22, the Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Planning Team, composed of a group of cattlemen, hunters, conservationists and representatives of a handful of state and federal agencies, met for the first time in Albuquerque to begin the two-year process of drawing up a revised and more detailed recovery plan.
In 1982, “there were no Mexican wolves in the wild anywhere, and it wasn’t foreseen that there would be,” said Eva Sargent, who represents Defenders of Wildlife on the recovery planning team. “The idea for this team is to write a proper recovery plan with goals of how to get there and de-listing criteria.”
Cowan, who is a member of the recovery planning team, said she hopes the team will create a recovery plan that will make ranchers’ needs a top priority.
“I hope that we accomplish some sort of situation that allows ranchers and livestock producers to stay on the ground,” she said. “How do we do that? I certainly don’t have any bright ideas on that at this point in time. It’s vital that we allow the ranching industry to survive in that area.”
But the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, one of the most zealous voices for wolf recovery, claims the team is stacked against conservation interests.
“The selection of participants was heavily influenced by politics,” said Michael Robinson, conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity. “Our organization is the reason that Mexican wolves are in the wild now. By any stretch of the term ‘stakeholder,’ we qualify, but we’ve been excluded because we believe very strongly in upholding the science. There are others on the team who take the same view, but they are very few.”
The team is full of well-qualified scientists, he said, and he hopes wolf biology won’t get watered down on the team amid ranchers’ concerns.
Even though Cowan and other ranchers are participating on the team, another group of ranchers, led by APWE and the Gila Livestock Growers, hopes a judge will stop any effort to continue the Mexican wolf recovery program.
Last year, those groups and Otero and Catron counties filed a lawsuit aiming for a court ruling allowing ranchers to kill Mexican wolves they believed were responsible for livestock depredations. The lawsuit claimed that no problem wolves had been removed from the wild since 2007, and the ranchers want the right to defend their cattle from attack.
Part of the ranchers’ anger stems from the Fish and Wildlife Service’s abandonment of a “three strikes” rule in 2009, which allowed the agency to kill or trap wolves that had attacked livestock three times.
Cowan’s group didn’t join the lawsuit because it felt it was time to give up on taking its cause to the courtroom.
“New Mexico Cattle Growers has already participated in two lawsuits on this issue and we lost them both and we didn’t feel we had the funds to devote to another lawsuit in that venue,” Cowan said.
In February, the rancher groups and Catron and Otero counties withdrew their suit on a technicality, but they’re planning to re-file soon.
“It was a fatal flaw on our part,” Klumker said. Environmentalists “were really crowing and happy that we dropped the case, but we’re going to slam them again. We’re going to file it right back at the dirty bastards.”
You can read the article on New West and leave a comment supporting Mexican wolves here.
To learn how you can help the 50 remaining Mexican gray wolves, click here.