For more than 450 nights beginning the year Mexican wolves were first reintroduced to New Mexico and Arizona following their extirpation, 73-year-old retired school teacher Jean Ossorio has camped in the woods to look for wolves. That’s paid off with 50 sightings of the creatures, and she spoke of her experience watching one trot in and out of the road near her camp to the roughly 200 people who gathered at the Roundhouse Wednesday afternoon. The crowd gathered to call on Gov. Susana Martinez to steer her Game and Fish director, Alexa Sandoval, to authorize continued releases of captive-bred wolves into the wild. They wore headbands topped with paper wolf ears and wolf masks, carried stuffed wolves and wolf puppets, and toted signs declaring “Free the Lobos,” “Want better wildland? Free the wolves,” and “El Lobo belongs in New Mexico.”
Last year, when the US Fish and Wildlife Service moved forward with releasing Mexican wolf pups into the wild in Arizona and New Mexico in the interest of increasing genetic diversity for a critically imperiled species, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish sued for an injunction to stop the process. An appeal is still underway, but there’s concern that case won’t be decided before this spring presents an opportunity to release more pups or complete family groups.
“This isn't about economics. This isn't about politics,” Kevin Bixby, executive director of the Southwest Environmental Center, said at the rally. “This is about the Mexican wolf, which has been on this landscape for thousands of years and is about to go extinct.”
The event, organized by the Center for Biological Diversity and Lobos of the Southwest, was met with a rebuttal protest from New Mexico cattle ranchers whose signs replied, “Wolves B4 people.”
“It would be more feasible if we had a true recovery plan,” Jessica Decker, with the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association tells SFR, citing the same concern Sandoval and the Fish and Game commissioners gave for denying Fish and Wildlife the permits to release wolves here.
Caren Cowan, executive director of the Cattle Growers’ Association, argues that ranchers aren't allowed to manage wolves and that waiting for federal management agencies to step in to capture or kill a wolf that has begun attacking livestock means waiting while more cattle die.
“They need to engage the ranching community and give them the tools to be able to protect themselves,” she says. “It's not anti-wildlife or even anti-wolf. Ranchers just need to be able to take out offending wolves.”
Those tools exist, counters Madeleine Carey, greater Gila guardian for WildEarth Guardians, pointing to range riders, modified pasture and electrified or flagged fences as means for ranchers to protect their cattle before depredations start.
“It's just a change in the style of management,” she says. “Wolves were absent from the landscape for decades.”
At the conclusion of the rally, Peter Sloan and Bixby, both with the Southwest Environmental Center, and Bryan Bird and Michael Dax with Defenders of Wildlife hand delivered to the governor’s office what they say are 5,200 signatures calling for additional releases of Mexican wolves.
As Mike Phillips, director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund, which manages the Ladder Ranch facility in southern New Mexico used as a captive facility for Mexican wolves, told SFR in 2016: “The clock is not the Mexican wolf’s friend. When you have passed through such a profound genetic bottleneck, every generation that passes, you lose genetic diversity.”
That leads to all kinds of problems, among them, the likelihood that pups born this year will thrive. As it stands, the Mexican wolves in the wild, of which there are fewer than 100, are essentially as related as siblings. That inbreeding leads to smaller litters and fewer pups that live out their first year. New Mexican wolves have been needed to deepen the gene pool for several years, but Sandoval barred the release of more wolves here based on the lack of a finalized management plan for Mexican wolves that includes a set population goal. That plan is due out before the end of 2017, by court order secured by conservation agencies that sued the US Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to produce such a plan for the reintroduction program. The plan’s targets for the population and its recovery area for Mexican wolves, currently inhabiting southern New Mexico, southern Arizona and northern Mexico, are among its more contentious pieces.
“I can tell you that the last open recovery planning process hit a brick wall because the ‘science team’ came out with proposals that the ‘stakeholder team’ couldn’t and wouldn’t agree to,” Cowan, with the New Mexico Cattlegrower’s Association, wrote in a November article for the New Mexico Stockman Magazine. “The ‘scientists’ wanted to call all the planning shots and then have the ‘stakeholders’ figure out how to implement it.”
Stakeholders convened include the game and fish departments for Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah, as well as federal wildlife agencies in Mexico and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. A previous draft of a recovery plan produced by a panel of scientists called for a total population of about 750 wolves spread over three populations that could reach as far north as Utah and Colorado. Ranchers in those states have repeatedly expressed frustration that they’re not adequately compensated for cattle lost to wolves and thus face an economic hardship for coexisting with wolves.
The federal government, in partnership with nonprofit pro-wildlife organizations including Defenders of Wildlife, has worked to compensate ranchers for those losses, in addition to paying for deterrents to keep wolves away from livestock. In 2015, the federal government gave $100,000 to Arizona and New Mexico game and fish departments for depredation compensation, and $94,000 for preventive measures to reduce attacks on livestock. That money is matched by in-kind contributions from the Mexican Wolf Fund and Defenders of Wildlife to pay for proactive measures.
The last population count showed just six breeding pairs in the wild of a population officially estimated at 97. They also reported that 14 wolves were killed in 2016, including two that died while in wildlife managers’ hands during the annual population count. That’s the highest any single year since wolves were reintroduced. Last year’s efforts to use “cross-fostering,” a technique that involves adding captive-born pups to a wild den in hopes the female wolf will raise them as her own. The December monthly update on the Mexican wolf program identified the breeding female of one pack as a pup cross-fostered in 2014, the first reported incidence of such a pup successfully reproducing.
“Gov. Susana Martinez is answering to special interests that want to see the extinction of Mexican wolves—you saw their signs,” Michael Robinson, with the Center for Biological Diversity, said during the rally, arguing the lessons of tolerance and coexistence are ones needed throughout our society right now.
“Our government tried to extinguish the Mexican gray wolf and dammit we are not going to let them finish the job,” he continued. “It's time to stand up for the most vulnerable near there is no more vulnerable than the Mexican gray wolf. … Governor Martinez, … don't let your legacy be extinction.”
A debate raged Wednesday among dozens of people outside the state Capitol over wolves versus ranchers.
“More wolves,” shouted some people holding signs with slogans like “Free the Lobos.” Their supporters howled.
“No wolves,” shouted another group, some wearing cowboy hats and holding signs that said, “Moove Over Wolves!” and “No More Lobos!”
No one threatened to throw punches, even when things got heated. The competing demonstrators seemed content to outshout one another.
The passionate debate over the Mexican gray wolf, an endangered species, has worn on for decades with little sign of a middle ground or a truce, even as a federal appeals court prepares to rule in a case brought by New Mexico against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over recovery efforts for the species.
Casey Spradley, a rancher from San Juan County, said she doesn’t oppose wolves, but she’s concerned about captive-raised wolves being released into the wild, potentially with less fear of humans.
“My concern is they just keep trying to turn out more and more and more wolves,” said Spradley, who does not live in an area of Southern New Mexico set aside by the federal government for recovery of the Mexican gray wolf. “My bigger issue than the release of wolves is that the other side is trying to use the reintroduction of wolves to drive ranchers off of public lands. I believe there is a second agenda.”
Santa Fe artist and musician Bird Thompson argued passionately with some of the ranchers, saying wolves have as much right to be on the landscape as cows.
“As long as I’m breathing, I will fight for wild animals and people to co-exist,” Bird said later.
Craig Ogden, who runs a farm near Loving, said federal wildlife officials have talked about creating a corridor for the wolf to migrate from Interstate 40 to the Guadalupe Mountains near his property. He said he’s concerned about the potential for the wolf to impede efforts he and others are making to restore populations of the lesser prairie chicken, another endangered species in the area.
Mexican wolves were native to New Mexico, Texas, Arizona and Mexico until they were hunted and trapped to near extinction in the 1970s, according to The Wolf in the Southwest: The Making of an Endangered Species, a book that cites wolf hunters and government reports.
Bryan Bird, with Defenders of Wildlife, said the release of captive-bred wolves is imperative to the genetic health of the wild Mexican gray wolf populations. In 2015, there were 97 Mexican wolves in the wild in New Mexico and Arizona. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists have said that’s too few to ensure a diverse gene pool for the species.
About 40 wolf pups were counted over the summer in the wild, but it is uncertain how many will survive the winter.
Since 2015, the New Mexico State Game Commission has denied a permit for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to release captive wolves into the wild in an effort to diversify the gene pool. The state argues the federal agency lacks an adequate recovery plan for the wolf, making it hard for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish to manage other species.
The federal agency defied the commission in 2016, saying that under federal law, it didn’t need the state’s permission to release a couple of captive wolf cubs into the Gila National Forest.
The state won an injunction from a federal district judge in Las Cruces in June to stop the Fish and Wildlife Service from releasing any more captive wolves without a permit. The federal agency appealed the ruling. In January, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals heard the appeal, but it has yet to make a ruling.
“We are hoping for a decision before the wolf release season begins, which is soon,” said Bird, Southwest program director for Defenders of Wildlife, which joined the case in support of the Fish and Wildlife Service.
The case could have broad implications, determining whether the federal government or the state ultimately has the final say in recovery plans for endangered species.
Meanwhile, under a court ruling in a separate case, the Fish and Wildlife Service is supposed to complete a Mexican gray wolf recovery plan by November.
“We’re hoping once that plan is out and it has all the great science, we can finally move forward,” Bird said.
Show your support for Mexican wolves with a Letter to the Editor today!
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 for writing your letter are below, but please write in your own words, from your own experience. Don’t try to include all the talking points in your letter.
Letter Writing Tips & Talking Points
• Time is running out for the Mexican gray wolf. Governor Martinez needs to stop blocking science based recovery and listen to her voters. By not allowing releases of wolves into the wild, she is driving the lobo to extinction.
• Inbreeding is causing lower pup litters and lower survival rates for pups. The genetic problems Mexican wolves are experiencing can easily be relieved by releases of captive wolves to the wild, but Governor Martinez’s game commission has blocked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from doing its job to recover the lobo. They should stop blocking science-based recovery.
• The captive population of Mexican gray wolves has enough genetic diversity that more releases of wolves could save the wild population from inbreeding, but more releases must happen, and quickly.
• A majority of voters in New Mexico want to the recovery program to succeed. Governor Martinez would gain more support from voters by working with the recovery program, rather than against it. In a 2013 poll of registered voters, 87% of both Arizonans and New Mexicans agreed that “wolves are a vital part of America’s wilderness and natural heritage.” 83% of Arizonans and 80% of New Mexicans agreed that “the US Fish and Wildlife Service should make every effort to help wolves recover and prevent extinction.”
• At last official count, only 97 Mexican gray wolves were found in the wild, making them one of the most endangered wolves in the world. The wild population declined 12% since last year’s count. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s plan to release only one family in 2016 is sadly inadequate to the need to increase the numbers and genetic health of endangered lobos in the wild.
• Scientists believe that Mexican wolves will improve the overall health of the Southwest and its rivers and streams – just as the return of gray wolves to Yellowstone has helped restore balance to its lands and waters.
• Wolves generate economic benefits - a University of Montana study found that visitors who come to see wolves in Yellowstone contribute roughly $35.5 million annually to the regional economy.
• We have a moral, economic and scientific responsibility to restore endangered species like the Mexican gray wolf.
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