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Op-Ed: Governor should back wolf protection experts

By Michael J Robinson, Albuquerque Journal, December 15, 2019

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Wildlife advocates are cheering the New Mexico Game Commission’s Oct. 25 decision to cooperate with other agencies in managing Mexican gray wolves. But unless state managers can redirect the misguided U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the genetic plight of these incredibly imperiled animals will continue to deteriorate.


This conservation emergency recently prompted 80 scientists and representatives of environmental and animal protection groups to write to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and federal wildlife officials in Washington, D.C., and Albuquerque. They requested a fundamental change in the management of Mexican gray wolves, an endangered subspecies unique to the Southwest and Mexico.


Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration should endorse these experts’ recommendations for the rewrite of the 2015 federal wolf management rule, which a federal court decided was not based on the best available science and ordered rewritten by May 2021.


Through Democratic and Republican administrations alike – under presidents Clinton, Bush, Obama and Trump – the Fish and Wildlife Service has minimized wolf releases, and been too quick to trap and shoot wolves living in the wild. The service has also enabled private individuals to kill the animals.


Federal wolf removals have left pups to starve, and caused siblings and mates to flee to, and sometimes die in, unfamiliar places. Yet cruelty to these intelligent, social animals hasn’t curbed wolf predation on livestock because the conditions that cause conflicts recur.


For example, carcasses of cattle that die of poisonous weeds or disease draw wolves in to scavenge close to vulnerable herds. Scientists have requested, instead, that ranchers be required to remove or render inedible – say, with lime – such non-wolf-killed carrion before it attracts wolves.


Wolves that scavenge on stock they or their pack members have not killed would not suffer removal if they subsequently kill livestock. And they wouldn’t be removed from national forests if no person was present on the grazing allotment to scare them away from livestock.


These proven strategies to prevent conflicts with livestock should be mandatory.

But since the wolf reintroduction began in 1998, there have been no requirements – zero – on livestock owners to protect their domestic animals. Wolves have paid a terrible price.


The government trapped, and did not subsequently release, approximately 55 wolves, including around a third that died as a direct consequence of their captures. And federal employees have shot 16 wolves, including one identified as “not genetically redundant” before his 2004 killing.


The Fish and Wildlife Service maintains that wolves must be removed from the wild and even shot to gain public tolerance and thereby prevent illegal killings. But approximately 100 Mexican wolves have been killed illegally and dozens more disappeared suspiciously, a far higher rate than in other wolf populations. Government removals have not saved wolves from poachers.


Why are so many of these canny animals falling prey to gunshots?


The answer may lie in the government’s loans of telemetry receivers programmed to the wolves’ radio collars to ranchers to enable them to locate the wolves…. Only agency staff and research scientists should wield instruments that strip wolves of their ability to hide.


The recent letter from scientists and advocates also requests a resumption of the releases from captivity to the wild of well-bonded wolf pairs with pups.


Reintroduction began with releases of family groups and the service acknowledges that two-thirds of such releases succeeded. But the last such release was in 2006 and genetic diversity has since declined.


The wolves in the wild today are almost all as closely related to each other as siblings. Yet the feds have no plan to stop trapping and shooting them, or to release captive family groups that could rescue the wild population genetically.


The New Mexico Game Commission should leverage its involvement by insisting that the feds finally protect wolves and ensure them genetically suitable mates. We know how to save these ecologically vital animals: We just need government agencies to step up.