Monday, 30 March 2009 | Written by Richard Bard | Blog
I don’t know about you, but my mother taught me to clean up after myself. Most of us would agree that it’s a pretty good maxim to live by. Unfortunately, many ranchers have been ignoring this advice, resulting in the deaths and removal of Mexican wolves, the endangered sub-species of gray wolf that lives in the remote mountains of Arizona and New Mexico.
Ranchers pay very little for grazing leases that enable them to leave their cattle and sheep for months at a time on public lands across the West. Now, Apache National Forest, in Arizona, is considering a policy shift that would require ranchers to either remove, or render inedible, livestock that die of natural causes on National Forest lands inside the Mexican Wolf Recovery Area. The new policy would have no effect on livestock carcasses on private land, the adjacent Gila National Forest or anyplace outside the Mexican Wolf Recovery Area.
Why Clean Up the Mess?
For almost four years, I worked for the state and federal governments on the Mexican-wolf reintroduction project. In that time, I found many cattle that died of natural causes on public lands, but I never knew a rancher to do anything about it. They were left where they fell, until scavengers like bears, coyotes and yes, wolves, cleaned up the mess. It is illegal to litter on public lands, but for some reason you can leave your dead cow lying around.
For a wolf that has to choose between risking life and limb attacking an elk ten times its size or helping itself to a risk-free meal of already dead beef, it can be an easy, but ultimately fatal choice. Wolves who become accustomed to the easy life of scavenging on dead cattle may develop a taste for beef that will lead them to prey on live cattle. If their only option is to hunt, wolves usually ignore domestic animals, whose docile behavior typically won’t elicit a chase by the predators.
Reintroduced Wolves Fail to Thrive
Over a decade ago, Mexican wolves were reintroduced to portions of their historic range, but they have failed to thrive like the more famous wolves of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. There are currently about 55 Mexican wolves in the wild, roughly half of what biologists predicted would be roaming the forests after ten years.
Left to their own devices, Mexican wolves have no trouble forming packs and raising young, but human-related deaths and removals are suppressing the population. Poaching has taken a toll, but nearly as many wolves have been either “lethally controlled” or trapped and brought into captivity by government managers after preying on livestock. For years, experts have recommended ensuring that dead livestock are unavailable to the wolves as a way to minimize the risk of their hunting live domestic animals.
Apache National Forest is currently accepting public comments on their Forest Plan revision, which includes the new policy of requiring ranchers to take responsibility for their property. Although livestock carcasses are a bigger problem in the Gila National Forest, Apache National Forest’s policy change is a good first step toward more responsible ranching on public lands. By sending in your comments to the Forest Service, you can send a message that on OUR public lands, Mom’s rule about cleaning up your own mess is a good one.