PINETOP A plan to expand the range for one of Arizona’s rarest animals is reigniting passions over whether and where humans should coexist with predators.
The Mexican gray wolf — a native stalker of the Southwestern woods that by the 1970s was driven from the wild — was reintroduced into the Blue Range of eastern Arizona starting in 1998.
Biologists counted 75 wolves in Arizona and New Mexico in their annual census about a year ago, with up to 300 more at dozens of captive breeding sites. Now, they believe it’s necessary to make more room for packs — 14 at last count — to squeeze the most from a limited gene pool.
“We can’t, over time, maintain genetic viability in the little area that they have,” said Benjamin Tuggle, regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
At a public meeting on Tuesday evening to discuss expanding the wolves’ range, ranchers and rural families were outraged.
“The sad truth is that the wolves are already here,” Globe Mayor Terry Wheeler said. But if they’re released in Gila County as proposed, he said, wolves will soon be in Scottsdale “munching down on pink Pomeranians.”
Others in the crowd of about 300 at the Hon-Dah Resort-Casino and Conference Center, east of Pinetop, responded with pronouncements of hysteria or “lobophobia” after several people angrily accused the government of endangering children.
Biologists said that wolves are wild animals requiring caution but that they have not attacked anyone since reintroduction began.
“Last night and the night before were my 340th and 341st (camping) in actual occupied wolf range,” said Jean Ossorio, a retired teacher from Las Cruces, N.M. “I’ve seem 43 wolves. It’s terrific.”
More than one ranch family lamented the loss of hundreds of “quality protein meals” with each lost head of cattle to wolves. Some said they try to work with federal and non-profit agencies but find the programs lacking.
Leslie Johnson, whose family ranches along the border of White Mountain Apache Tribe land where wolves roam, said it takes 45 days to gather up cows for vaccinations and other needs. “I don’t see how we can deal with (wolves),” she said. “Why do they have to put them where we have families making our livelihood?”
Government agents investigated 50 claims of livestock loss to Mexican gray wolves last year, according to recovery-program documents, and verified 18 cattle deaths, one mule death and one cattle injury.
“We’ve asked that Fish and Wildlife Service remove wolves from the (San Carlos) Reservation,” said Steve Titla, counsel for tribal cattle associations. “When are you going to start doing your job?”
Officials responded that a federal employee works on the reservation and that the agency has budgeted $25,000 this year to help with wolf problems.
Members of the White Mountain Apache and Havasupai tribes spoke for protection.
The Mexican gray wolf is legally a protected endangered species, though its “experimental” reintroduction status allows officials and, under some circumstances, ranchers to kill wolves that attack livestock.
As the federal government seeks to remove endangered status from thriving gray wolves elsewhere in the U.S., it proposes listing the Mexican gray wolf as a biologically distinct subspecies to maintain federal protection in the Southwest.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposes to more than double the area in which captive wolves could be released — from 5,300 square miles to 12,500 square miles. The release zone currently is restricted to the southern Apache National Forest, but would grow north and west to the Payson area, including the full Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests and three ranger districts in the Tonto National Forest. It would also expand east in New Mexico, across the Gila National Forest and into the Cibola National Forest.
As wolves wandered and made new homes, they would be allowed to live in forested habitat as far north as Interstate 40, but not beyond. That excludes them from the Grand Canyon, southern Utah, northern New Mexico and southern Colorado.
These are elk- and deer-rich zones that a panel of scientists who advised the agency said might be necessary to sustain a full population of wolves, which they pegged at 750 animals. The experimental wolf territory under the proposal would also shift south of Interstate 10 to the border.
Representatives of a state elk-hunters association and the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks fraternal order, which operates a children’s camp in wolf territory, opposed the range-expansion plan.
Fish and Wildlife does not have an official population goal and is still working from a 1982 plan that had aimed to get 100 wolves in the wild by 2006.
The wild-population numbers have increased 50 percent in three years after several years of stagnation. Only one captive wolf has been released in that time. Wolf supporters note that there are only three wild breeding pairs and say that threats from inbreeding, such as small litter sizes, call for more releases onto new turf.
They fear the program has stalled over political backlash from Arizona, Utah and other states. They pressure federal managers to limit, not expand, wolves’ population and range, said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity.
Arizona Game and Fish Department Director Larry Voyles said the increase shows that the program is on track.
But Robinson said political interference — especially from Utah, which seeks to avoid a Grand Canyon wolf population that could migrate northward — has kept the Fish and Wildlife Service from developing a new plan that would add recovery zones north of I-40.
Tuggle said the time frame for a new plan is up to his boss, Fish and Wildlife Director Dan Ashe. But, Tuggle said, if the agency’s scientific judgment is that only a further expansion will ensure a self-sustaining wolf population, that will come.
Numerous public officials, mostly from Arizona and Utah, spoke against range expansion and federal management.
Arizona House Minority Leader Chad Campbell, D-Phoenix, submitted a letter endorsing a wider recovery zone than the government proposes.
Oliver Starr, a California wolf advocate, said in an interview that ranchers who blame federal officials for their woes don’t mention that taxpayers subsidize their operations and provide national-forest grazing leases. He said ranchers who don’t clean up cow carcasses are, in effect, baiting wolves.
Ecologically, Starr said, wolves provide a service.
Americans for Prosperity, a national interest group promoting limited government, showed a documentary critical of the wolf program at a gathering of about 30 people before the meeting.