A Decade After Reintroduction of the Wolf, Environmentalists, Ranchers Continue to Play Tug of War Over Program
By Rene Romo
Copyright © 2008 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Southern Bureau
LAS CRUCES— Ten years into a federal-led effort to reintroduce the endangered Mexican gray wolf into its former territory in the Southwest, the divide between the program's supporters and critics seems as wide as ever.
And the recovery effort has made fitful progress, at best, since March 29, 1998, when biologists opened three holding pens in the mountains of southeast Arizona and released the first 11 wolves into the wild.
Last month, the Albuquerque-based Wilderness Alliance and the Las Cruces-based Southwest Environmental Center, two groups supportive of the Mexican gray wolf recovery effort, sponsored trips to wolf country for groups of middle school and college students. They hoped to hear wolf howls, find paw prints or even catch a glimpse of one of the 23 wolves in New Mexico.
Meanwhile, the Reserve public school district, in response to concerns about the safety of children, has installed one, and plans to install several more, wolf-proof shelters to protect school kids at bus stops in rural Catron County after wolf-stalking scares.
The deep and often bitter divide between supporters and opponents of the wolf project is a big obstacle to its success, observers say.
"The conflict is real, and until we have either better federal leadership or better local leadership, the prospects for wolves are not going to improve greatly," said John Horning of Santa Fe-based WildEarth Guardians, formerly Forest Guardians.
"And right now the prospects for wolf recovery are not great," Horning said.
"It's kind of depressing to read all these comments that things are going to hell in a handbasket," said Laura Schneberger, head of the Gila Livestock Growers Association and a staunch opponent of the wolf reintroduction effort.
"It's just not true," Schneberger said. "There are a lot of uncollared wolves out there."
As the wolf reintroduction program struggles into its second decade in the Southwest, environmentalists are pushing for more aggressive steps to expand the endangered species in the wild. Many residents continue to object to the program's presence in their backyards. And federal and state officials continue to manage a program, underwritten by the federal Endangered Species Act, that is as much hated by some as it is believed in by others.
According to a 1996 environmental impact statement preceding the 1998 release of the wolves, the wolf population was expected to grow to 100 wolves by the end of 2006 in the 4.4 million-acre Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area, which encompasses U.S. forests in southeast Arizona and southwest New Mexico.
But the Mexican gray wolf count at the end of 2007 was 52 wolves— a 12-percent decline from the previous year. By January, the total shrank to 50 with the deaths of two pups in Arizona.
In southwest New Mexico, at last count, a total of 23 wolves remained in the Gila National Forest.
"Do we want to have the only lobo left in New Mexico be a bronze statue at UNM?" asked Wilderness Alliance spokesman Nathan Newcomer.
John Morgart, wolf recovery program coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said, "Obviously, we're disappointed" that the number of Mexican gray wolves in the wild declined from 2006 to 2007.
But Morgart also said, "By no stretch of the imagination has (the recovery program) failed. Biologically, the program has proven to be a huge success."
Morgart noted that wolves in the wild have mated and produced pups year after year.
John Oakleaf, the Alpine, Az.-based field projects coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, noted that the entire breeding stock for the Mexican gray wolf was once down to seven wolves in captivity. Today, besides the 50 Mexican gray wolves in the wild in Arizona and New Mexico, there are about 350 in breeding facilities across the U.S.
Schneberger said federal officials have probably undercounted the wolves. But, in any case, the wolf population has reached the limit that can be supported by the recovery area, she said.
"The truth is, the population is pretty stable and is doing pretty good, despite all these removals," Schneberger said, referring to the removal of 22 wolves from the wild in 2007, mostly for preying on livestock.
Environmentalists contend the recovery effort has been hamstrung by overly restrictive protocols.
Among those requirements, they say, is the controversial Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) 13, which calls for the permanent removal from the wild of wolves tied to three cattle depredations in one year.
Since wolves were first reintroduced to Arizona in 1998, about 34 have been permanently removed from the wild, including 11 that were shot to death.
The number of breeding pairs in the wild declined from seven at the end of 2006 to four at the end of 2007.
Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity said the program's management under the Bush administration will ensure "the second extinction of the Mexican wolf in the wild."
Better in the Rockies
If supporters of the Mexican gray wolf program want to imagine how the wolves' prospects might be under different circumstances, they need only look to the success of the reintroduction of gray wolves in the northern Rockies.
Since 41 wolves were introduced inside Yellowstone National Park over three years starting in 1995, the wolf population has grown to more than 1,500 in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Starting in 1998, 50 Mexican gray wolves were released into Arizona and New Mexico in the first three years of the recovery effort launched under the Endangered Species Act. Ten years after the program's start, the number of wolves in the wild is about the same.
Fish and Wildlife Service officials said there are critical differences between the wolf reintroduction programs in Yellowstone and the one on the Arizona-New Mexico border.
One crucial difference, Oakleaf said, is that wolves introduced in Yellowstone were captured wild in Canada and then relocated to the U.S.— "From wild to wild."
The first Mexican gray wolves released into the wild in the southwestern U.S. were born and raised in captivity, and the rate at which they successfully produce pups in the wild is less than half that of the wild-born wolves relocated to Yellowstone, Oakleaf said.
Wolves introduced in Yellowstone were not confined to the national park and were allowed to disperse. Wolves released in Arizona or New Mexico are captured if they stray outside the recovery area boundaries.
Morgart noted that the 2.2-million-acre Yellowstone National Park is devoid of cattle, like other nearby swaths of land in Idaho and Montana, so conflicts with ranchers are reduced.
In the Gila National Forest— where Mexican gray wolves on the New Mexico end of the recovery project roam— ranchers are authorized to graze roughly 25,000 head of cattle on 126 active grazing allotments.
Horning noted that cattle grazing in national forests of the Southwest goes on year-round, unlike the northern Rockies.
The Fish and Wildlife Service in February announced its plan to delist the northern Rockies gray wolf as an endangered species, leaving management of the population to Wyoming, Idaho and Montana effective as of March 28. But environmental groups, fearing wolf numbers will plummet under state control, are challenging the delisting in federal court.
A rough 2007
In the Arizona-New Mexico recovery area, cattle make up only a small percentage of the wolves' diet, which is primarily elk. In 2007, the 52 wolves were confirmed as the cause of 22 livestock depredations in the area.
Nonetheless, the mix of wolves and cattle has generated enormous political pressure on state and federal officials managing the wolf recovery program in Arizona and New Mexico.
Last year, that pressure increased, particularly in New Mexico's Catron County, where opposition has been fierce all along.
New Mexico ranchers sued unsuccessfully to halt the recovery program when it began. In July 2005, after a governor's task force was set up to try to address concerns of people opposed to the wolf recovery project, the Catron County Commission approved a list of "non-negotiable" items, including a halt to new wolf releases in New Mexico and the construction of fenced "wolf reserves."
In a paper titled "What is needed for acceptance and toleration of wolves as neighbors in New Mexico?" the plan called for relocating wolves into the fenced reserves "after one confirmed livestock or domestic animal attack or kill, or after one human encounter, regardless of where these attacks, kills or encounters occur."
Ranchers and Catron County officials say the wolves are taking a heavy toll on livestock, for which ranchers are not adequately compensated.
They also say wolves have attacked pets and horses and stalked hunters, people on horseback, and rural families, including children.
In February 2007, the Catron County commission passed an ordinance that would allow it to order the removal of wolves deemed habituated to humans— wolves that frequent residential areas and show no fear of humans.
Two environmental groups, including WildEarth Guardians, filed suit in federal court to void the wolf removal ordinance. A March 10 settlement conference with a federal magistrate in Albuquerque failed to yield an agreement between the two sides.
Last June, Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., sponsored an amendment that would have halted the use of federal funds for the continued operation of the Mexican wolf recovery program. The amendment was defeated, while Pearce warned, "... It's a matter of time until a wolf catches one of these children."
Supporters of the recovery program have pushed back against efforts to kill it.
In July, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson called on the program's managers to suspend SOP 13, which had led to the decision to kill an alpha female wolf for preying on livestock weeks after she whelped a litter of pups.
In December, Bruce Thompson, director of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, wrote the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to urge program rule changes, such as expanding the boundaries of the wolf recovery area and allowing initial releases of Mexican gray wolves into New Mexico, rather than just Arizona.
Rules governing the recovery program, Thompson wrote, contain "substantive shortcomings that impose hardships on the citizens of New Mexico, limit management flexibility, and result in unsustainable losses in the wolf population."
Kevin Bixby, director of the Southwest Environmental Center in Las Cruces, said that finding common ground to help the wolf recovery effort succeed is difficult, but he is hopeful.
"I am absolutely confident that we can find a reasonable solution to wolf-livestock conflicts that is fair to both wolves and ranchers, but it's going to require that everybody is willing to compromise," Bixby said.
But Bixby made it clear that his side in dispute is unyielding on at least one point.
"The bottom line is we cannot allow the wolf to go extinct from the wild a second time," Bixby said. "That is non-negotiable."