PINETOP — March 29, will mark 15th anniversary that Mexican Gray wolves have again roamed free in the mountains of east central Arizona and western New Mexico. The last of the original population of wolves had been extirpated from the landscape of the Southwest by the mid-1900s, killed off by the federal government, local governments and livestock producers.
The population that was reintroduced in 1998 was captive bred from seven individuals caught in Mexico.
The original goal of the program was to have established a self-sustaining population of wolves by 2006. The population goal was originally set at 100.
It’s been more than six years since the original target date and by the end of 2011 the number was at about 58 wolves in the wild with well over 200 in a captive breeding program.
A little over half of the goal has been met and it’s over six years behind schedule. But despite those disheartening numbers success may perhaps be assessed by gains in what was described as the “ultimate factor.” In a 2001 assessment of the wolf reintroduction program the most critical factor for long term success of the effort was listed as “human attitude.”
It was human attitudes that led to near extinction of the wolves. To bring the wolves back is going to require the cooperation of people, according to the 2001 assessment.
Echoing the words of the 2001 report, current field team leader of the wolf project, Chris Bagnoli said, “The single biggest factor is human acceptance and tolerance.”
Bagnoli is the Interagency Field Team Leader for the Mexican wolf reintroduction project. He works for Arizona Game and Fish, in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Forest Service, USDA Wildlife Services (APHIS) and, until recently, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish. The White Mountain Apache Tribe is also a cooperator with the program. Bagnoli’s job, with his four field team members, is the day-to-day management of wolves. His job is to implement the policies, as approved by Fish and Wildlife.
Bagnoli’s job is not easy and is not so much about management of wild wolves as it is about dealing with people. Many of the people he deals with daily do not support the program.
The field team faces opposition from livestock producers and other people who live in rural areas who are understandably skeptical after they’ve lost livestock or had their dogs attacked by wolves. At the other end of the spectrum are people who favor wolf reintroduction but are displeased when the team has to implement management decisions about the wolves that may involve killing them or trapping them and removing them from the wild.
In trying to “manage around” the potential for conflicts between wolves and livestock Bagnoli’s team has to look carefully at areas where wolf releases are being considered.
The Forest Service is mandated to manage public land for multiple uses, including conflicting uses such as grazing and reintroduction of endangered species. Because of that mandate, Bagnoli said, they are required to manage wolves in a way that “weighs” the rights of grazing permittees.
In the last year and a half new problems have arisen that challenge the wolf reintroduction program. In June 2011, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish withdrew from the program. Six months later the Arizona Game and Fish Commission voted to end its support for any more wolf releases until there is a new recovery plan to replace the 30-year-old plan that has been guiding the program. The game and fish commissioners revised their stand in January 2012 and moved to support the release of wolves to replace wolves killed illegally and under some circumstances for wolves lost to natural causes. Bagnoli said there is currently planning in progress to release some “replacement” wolves in 2013.
In addition to these recent impediments, the program has been since its inception hampered by the terms of the three-decade-old plan, long acknowledged as outdated. That 1982 plan requires that initial releases of wolves be limited to a small area of the Apache Forest in Greenlee County and requires that wolves stay inside the confines of the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area. Those two requirements alone have increased the difficulty of managing the program.
By restricting initial wolf releases to only one very small “primary release” area it limits the program’s ability to succeed by not allowing releases in more favorable areas in the 5,000 square mile Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area. Confinement to the one release zone, Bagnoli describes as a “bottleneck.”
Requiring that wolves be removed that stray outside the boundaries of the recovery area, young wolves are often prevented from following their natural tendency for dispersal to form new packs. “Wolves don’t understand boundaries,” Bagnoli said, “but it’s a constraint we currently operate under.”
Bagnoli and his team members do not control policy. Their task is to figure out how and when to release wolves and how to prevent as much as possible wolf/livestock conflicts.
Figuring out how and when to release wolves is “a mix of art and science,” Bagnoli said. “You can’t just throw an animal out there and say ‘good luck.’ We have to look for opportunities to integrate the animals into the wild.”
The Mexican wolf program was further made more difficult as the initial releases were wolves that had been bred in captivity, wolves not educated in wolf life skills. “We’ve taken animals out of captivity that have spent their lives behind chain link fence and we’re turning them loose in the wild and hoping they’ll be able to figure it out,” Bagnoli said.
Experienced wolves “they know where the prey is, they know how to follow the prey around, they know how to avoid humans… how to handle an animal, how to kill it, how to pursue it, how to hunt. If you’re a young wolf in that pack you’re going to learn that.”
The wolves that are bred in captivity and then released require a lot of management activity, said Bagnoli, just to get “them on the right track.” The right track for a wolf is to “figure out how to kill deer and elk,” how to avoid people and “how to set up a territory and integrate themselves into it.”
Although the problems associated with attaining success are many, Bagnoli is optimistic about the current situation.
In 2012, two new packs formed, bringing the number to 14, and now almost all of the wolves in the wild were born in the wild. The two new packs, Bagnoli said, is a “big development.”
Another recent development that Bagnoli cites as a step toward winning over human attitudes for the project is the formation and ongoing work of the Interdiction Stakeholder Council. The council is composed of livestock producers and groups who support the wolf program. This council is working collaboratively to resolve the conflicts, outside of the courtroom. “It’s an important development,” Bagnoli said. “It’s tough for them (livestock producers) to support something that’s harming their livelihood.”
“The stakeholders that live in ranch houses in the (wolf recovery area) are very leery of it. They’ve had to live through it.”
In January, Bagnoli’s team will start the annual count of wolves that will be used to create an annual report on the program.
When Bagnoli speaks about the wolf program, it’s clear from his answers that he’s addressed all the questions many times since he started managing the team in July 2008. It’s also clear that he’s pragmatic and dedicated to making the program a success.
“Wolves are endangered, they’re rare but we want them to be viewed like every other animal in terms of integrating them into a system, not necessarily placing them higher than other animals,” Bagnoli said.
“The environment has changed. It’s not the 1880s; there are more people now. If we’ve demonstrated anything it’s that we’ve got a population of wolves that have established themselves and are able to integrate themselves into the modern day landscape.
“It’s been a big challenge, but a worthy one.”
“We want and support a population of Mexican wolves within their historic range in Arizona. They are an important part of our wildlife heritage but we want them to fit in the modern day landscape. There are really good people involved in this. It’s important for the State of Arizona to be involved in this and do things responsibly and try to move wolf conservation forward.”
When asked about his personal view of his job managing a controversial program, Bagnoli said, “It’s definitely been worth it. It’s been rewarding on a number of levels. I have no regrets.”
Read the full article here.
PLEASE SUBMIT A LETTER TO THE EDITOR OF THE WHITE MOUNTAIN INDEPENDENT THANKING THE PAPER FOR THIS ARTICLE AND CALLING ON THE US FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE TO RELEASE MORE WOLVES INTO THE WILD.
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 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Tips for writing your letter are below, but please write in your own words, from your own experience.
Letter Writing Tips & Talking Points
Below are a few suggestions for ensuring your message gets through clearly-your letter will be most effective if you focus on a few key points, so don’t try to use all of these. If you need additional help or want someone to review your letter before you send it, email it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Start by thanking paper for publishing this article. This makes your letter immediately relevant and increases its chances of being published.
Convey how important new releases of wolves into the wild are to increase the population’s numbers and genetic health, especially now.
Remind readers that, at last count, just 58 wolves, including five breeding pairs, survived in the wild. The wild population is extremely small and vulnerable to threats such as disease, inbreeding, or natural events. The USFWS should end the freeze on new releases of captive wolves into the wild.
State that the USFWS needs to change the rule that prohibits releasing wolves into New Mexico if they have not previously lived in the wild. The USFWS has for years been sitting on the Environmental Assessment that would make changing this problematic rule possible. Allowing direct releases in New Mexico will give wildlife managers the flexibility to get more wolves on the ground, regardless of unexpected events like forest fires. It will allow them to choose the best places for releases to succeed. And it will give these important animals a much better chance at recovery.
Advocate for a new, science-based recovery plan to replace the outdated 1982 plan; the US Fish and Wildlife Service should be doing all in its power to expedite release of a draft plan based on the work of the scientific subcommittee. Development of a new recovery plan that will address decreased genetic health and ensure long-term resiliency in Mexican wolf populations must move forward without delay.
Inform readers that obstruction by anti-wolf special interests and politics has kept this small population of unique and critically endangered wolves at the brink of extinction for too long and can no longer be allowed to do so.
Say that to reduce livestock-wolf conflicts livestock owners should be required to remove dead livestock from public lands or render the carcasses inedible (by applying lime). Dead livestock left lying around on the landscape can lead wolves to become habituated to domestic meat.
Tell readers why you support wolves and stress that the majority of New Mexico and Arizona voters support the Mexican wolf reintroduction. Polling showed 69% support in New Mexico and 77% support in Arizona.
Talk about your personal connection to wolves and why the issue is important to you. If you’re a grandmother wanting your grandchildren to have the opportunity to hear wolves in the wild, or a hunter who recognizes that wolves make game herds healthier, or a businessperson who knows that wolves have brought millions in ecotourism dollars to Yellowstone, say so.
Describe the ecological benefits of wolves to entire ecosystems and all wildlife. Wildlife biologists 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.
Keep your letter brief, between 150-300 words.
Provide your name, address, occupation, and phone number; your full address, occupation, and phone number will not be published, but they are required in order to have your letter published.
Please send us a copy at email@example.com as well to help us track actions being taken for the wolves.
Submit your letter to the Editor of The White Mountain Independent here.
Thank you for taking the time to write a letter on behalf of these important animals who cannot speak for themselves!
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Photo credit: Scott Denny