Friday, October 31, 2008

Sheepman appeals to neighbors for help
Forest Service plans to greatly reduce grazing to stop pasteurella spread

Sheepman Ron Shirts asked his neighbors for help here Thursday, Oct. 23, in a sometimes emotional meeting on alleged conflicts between domestic sheep and bighorn.

At issue is a draft Environmental Impact Statement in which the U.S. Forest Service proposes to eliminate all domestic sheep grazing on the Payette National Forest except for one or two allotments.

The reason is the alleged transmission of pasteurella, a form of pneumonia, between domestic and bighorn sheep, said Alan Schroeder, a Boise attorney working with Ron Shirts and his brother Frank on the case.

The comment period continues until Jan. 2, said the attorney.

"Please protest this action," said Joe Shirts, another brother. "Don't do it just because Ron's a nice guy, or just to save his operation alone. He deserves your support because it's the right thing to do."

Four ranchers will lose their grazing permits under the proposed action, Joe Shirts said. They won't be the only losers.

"These ranchers spend $3 million to $4 million in western Idaho each year on feed, fuel, vehicle repairs and other supplies," he said. "They ship 30,000 lambs to market in New York, Los Angeles and other places every year. If that money doesn't come back to Idaho, it will go to Argentina, New Zealand and other production areas."

The Forest Service cannot prove domestic sheep transmit pasteurella to bighorn, Schroeder said. Research indicates bighorn already carry a variety of disease pathogens. More likely vectors of transmission already exist in the Hells Canyon region, including birds.

Telemetry data and herder experience show bighorn rarely mingle with domestic sheep on open range, he said. The potential for transferring disease pathogens between them is remote.

"One must assume that the bighorn is free of the offending pathogens, that there are no other vectors for those particular bugs and that domestic sheep are carriers," Schroeder said. "One also must assume contact actually occurs and that a viable dose of the offending pathogens is transmitted at that time.

"If each of these assumptions exist, you must assume that the pathogens express themselves in the bighorn," he said. "Science shows whether or not an exposed animal actually becomes ill relates to environmental stressors, such as weather, food, predators or others. If the pathogens reveal themselves, the next assumption is that the bighorn will die."

The Shirts brothers developed management strategies to keep their sheep separated from bighorn, increasing the number of herders and guard dogs with each band, Schroeder said.

Best management practices listed in the strategy include notifying the Payette National Forest and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game immediately if bighorn are observed within one mile of the domestic sheep.

"If no contact between bighorns and domestic sheep is suspected or observed, herders may, with the approval of the land management agency involved, alter trailing or grazing routes to avoid contact, and/or haze the bighorn away," the strategy said.

Beyond grazing on the Payette National Forest, domestic sheep are on adjacent private lands, Schroeder said.

Faced with litigation brought by environmentalists, the Forest Service is only willing to require or demand that the sheep rancher guarantee no contact 100 percent, Schroeder said.

Bighorn sheep disappeared from the Hells Canyon region by about 1940. They were reintroduced beginning in the 1970s.

Bighorn are not listed or protected under the Endangered Species Act, Schroeder said.

Staff writer Pat McCoy is based in Boise. E-mail:

Friday, October 24, 2008

Fire-charred NM mountains fuel policy debate

Nearly 30 years ago, a piece of property along a twisting dirt road in the heart of the Manzano Mountains caught Paul Davis' eye.

With a stream on one side and an expansive hill covered with towering pines on another, the spot seemed like the perfect place to build his family's home.

"This was a natural meadow so the insurance company actually thought it was well protected when they came out. I didn't clear any trees around the backside at all or that side," Davis said, pointing to an area of the now-blackened landscape where his home once stood.

The house was one of six destroyed by a lightning-sparked wildfire in June, the third to break out in the central New Mexico mountains in seven months. Each time, hundreds of residents were forced from their homes.

Environmentalists point to the Manzanos as an example of why the nation needs to change its thinking about wildfire preparation and the circumstances under which the federal government pays to put out the flames.

Bryan Bird, wildplaces program director for WildEarth Guardians, contends that land management agencies are throwing a lot of money at ineffective thinning projects and efforts to suppress most fires on forest land.

"I think we need to completely reassess that approach to fire-prone forests, especially with climate change and the unpredictability and uncertainty about the future of forests and how fire is going to behave," he said during a recent tour of the burned area.

Experts agree that fire seasons across the nation are lasting longer, blazes are burning hotter, and federal, state and local firefighting budgets are getting tighter.

The three Manzano fires cost the Forest Service more than $9 million. Nationally, the agency has said spending on fires could reach $1.6 billion this year, about half its budget.

While federal land management agencies have long recognized the need to allow fire to burn in some areas, the problem is transferring that philosophy to decision-making on the ground, said Stephen Pyne, a professor at Arizona State University who teaches courses on wildfire history and management.

Pyne said more than three decades have passed since the Forest Service and National Park Service began changing their policies to restore fire to the landscape and include it as a management tool.

"It's not a case of whether we burn or we suppress, that's not an issue any more. That's over," said Pyne, who began his career as a firefighter on the Grand Canyon's North Rim in the late 1960s and went on to do fire planning for the National Park Service before turning to writing and teaching.

He said land managers cannot apply a one-size-fits-all approach to fire management. "To use a medical analogy, there are number of treatments — a little surgery, drugs, exercise, a mixtures of things," Pyne said.

The Oregon-based nonprofit Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology said the federal government will be taking a step in the right direction next year as it begins to implement the "Appropriate Management Response" policy for all federal lands. The policy calls for fire officials to consider multiple objectives and strategies and when managing a fire — for example, suppressing the flames on one side while letting them burn on the other.

"The new policy change recognizes that it is simply not humanly possible to attack all wildfires in all places at all times," said Timothy Ingalsbee, executive director of FUSEE. "We must learn to work with and use the benefits of fire where we can, suppress it where we must, but become far more strategic and selective in the places and methods we choose to commit firefighters to aggressive suppression."

Shifting gears can't happen soon enough, according to Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M. He said wildfires have charred some 58 million acres — or 90,000 square miles — across the nation in the past seven years.

"We are spending more, managing less, burning more and as a result, having to cut funds to other important resource programs such as recreation, fisheries and wildlife to battle these wildfires," Domenici said.

In the Manzanos and elsewhere, decades of mismanagement have resulted in overgrown forests that make reintroducing fire a difficult task, said Arlene Perea, a fire information officer with the Mountainair Ranger District.

The district has used prescribed fire and mechanical thinning, but Perea said wildfires can't be allowed to burn to clean out the forest because of the homes scattered throughout the area.

The condition of the Manzanos and inclement weather at the time of the three fires kept forest officials from doing much more than watch the flames eat up some 26,000 acres — or 40 square miles — and more than five dozen homes, Bird said.

He said some of the charred areas had been treated previously to reduce the fire risk, but the flames still burned through.

"It's the same scenarios we had with people living in the Mississippi River flood plain," he said. "If people are going to live in there, how do we plan for that and prepare for that?"

Bird said local governments should adopt building codes and zoning rules to help mitigate some of the danger. However, he said, homeowners also need to take responsibility.

Davis said he would not have done anything differently to prepare for the fire. Some of his neighbors cleared a swath of land around their homes and they still burned, while others did nothing and escaped the flames, he said.

"If I build again here, if I build again in a deep forest, I won't clear a tree again either," he said. "Fire's a risk and it just happened to hit."

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Federal Agencies to Team with Landowners, Ranchers and Energy Industry to Protect and Restore Wildlife Habitat on State, Federal and Private Lands

FWS-Elizabeth Slown, 505-248-6909/363-9592 or

BLM-Hans Stuart, 505-438-7510

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Center of Excellence for Hazardous Materials Management have proposed to enter into an innovative, voluntary conservation program that encourages landowners, energy companies and ranchers to join the agencies in protecting and restoring habitat for the lesser prairie chicken and sand dune lizard in southeast New Mexico.

Included in the program are agreements for participants to voluntarily undertake or fund conservation measures for the species, which are candidates for protection under the Endangered Species Act. The Service recommends using the agreements to encourage conservation, while providing greater certainty that if a species becomes listed as 'threatened' or 'endangered' despite their efforts, landowners will not be required to make significant additional changes in their activities on federal or non-federal lands.

Copies of the proposed agreements and an Environmental Assessment are available for public review and comment on the Service's website at To receive a compact disc or paper copy of the agreements, contact New Mexico Ecological Services Field Office, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2105 Osuna NE., Albuquerque, NM 87113 or call 505-761-4707. Comments should be submitted to this address and are due by Nov. 20, 2008.

The lesser prairie chicken and the sand dune lizard uses habitat on intermingled federal and non-federal lands. Under the program a Candidate Conservation Agreement applies to federal agencies and ranchers or energy companies that lease lands from the federal government. A Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances applies to private landowners, state agencies, and entities leasing state lands.

"I encourage people to review these agreements and consider participating," said Benjamin N. Tuggle, Regional Director for the Service's Southwest Region. "Because of New Mexico's mix of federal, state and private lands, one conservation approach isn't enough. The voluntary agreements provide an avenue to integrate conservation efforts across these intermingled land ownerships."

Landowners who sign on to the Candidate Conservation Program could be asked to do some of the following: allow lesser prairie chickens to be placed on their lands; control mesquite which could impact habitat; make grazing modifications; modify fences to reduce collision by prairie chickens; avoid leasing

habitat to energy development; keeping new surface disturbances out of dune areas; removing abandoned powerlines; and, agreeing not to modify occupied and suitable shinnery oak habitat.

"This proactive, collaborative program represents a new era in conservation," said Linda Rundell, New Mexico State Director for the BLM in Santa Fe. "The measures we are taking for the two species will increase the likelihood of their recovery and serve as a model for other conservation partnerships."

The Bureau of Land Management will work with the Service and CEHMM to identify projects and mitigation measures for landowners and companies that participate in the agreements, Rundell added.

Earlier this year, the BLM completed a Resource Management Plan Amendment for public lands in southeastern New Mexico to protect the species. The conservation measures to be applied under the Candidate Conservation program announced today will add to these efforts, and multiply the benefits to the two species.

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. We are both a leader and trusted partner in fish and wildlife conservation, known for our scientific excellence, stewardship of lands and natural resources, dedicated professionals and commitment to public service. For more information on our work and the people who make it happen, visit


About the Species:

Lesser prairie chickens are grouse that use habitats with sandy soils supporting shinnery oak-bluestem and sand sage-bluestem plant communities in the high plains. The birds were common in the early twentieth century, but their populations have declined due to wide-scale conversion of the native prairie.

The sand dune lizard prefers active and semi-stabilized sand dunes associated with shinnery oak and scattered sandsage. The oaks provide dune structure, shelter, and habitat for the species' prey base. Lizards are found in large dunes with deep, wind hollowed depressions called blowouts. They stay under vegetation or loose sand during the hot part of the day and at night.
Idaho lawmaker skeptical of wildfire report

TWIN FALLS (AP) — Republican Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho is disputing a report that concluded the ferocity of a massive wildfire in southern Idaho last year wouldn’t have been diminished even if more cattle grazing had been allowed before the fire.

‘‘If you use it responsibly, grazing is a substantial component in controlling the fuel loads in upland grazing lands that the state of Idaho is so well known for,’’ Craig told The Times-News.

He said the lightning- and cheatgrass-stoked Murphy Complex fire that torched 1,000 square miles of Idaho and Nevada backcountry would have been less intense had federal land managers allowed more cattle grazing on public land.

‘‘While the study said grazing was a piece of the action, they gave higher credit to all these other elements,’’ he said. ‘‘What I look at in fighting fires and range management is, can you put it out once it starts? Are you capable for putting it out once you’ve gained control?’’ The 49-page report released last month concluded dry fuel from a drought, strong winds, near 100-degree temperatures and a violent lightning storm the evening of July 16, 2007, fueled the fire. The report said the blaze was so intense that almost nothing could have stopped it.

Craig, noting he’s had firsthand experience with range fires since he was a child, called the conclusions of the report ‘‘curious.’’

‘‘In talking with the people on the ground out there — and I’m talking ranchers that have been there and have hundreds of years of experience on the ground — it became very obvious to them and to me that in areas where grazing had occurred in a reasonable fashion the fire was less,’’ Craig said.

Immediately after the fire, grazing practices became the center of a political flare-up. Besides Craig, Gov. C.L. ‘‘Butch’’ Otter said the giant fire could have been avoided if more grazing had been allowed.

But environmentalists argue livestock are harmful, with the Western Watersheds Project saying drought and the Bureau of Land Management’s planting of grasses favored by cattle exacerbated the fires.The report was released by the universities of Idaho and Nevada, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Geological Survey and the BLM.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Anti-grazing activists take on BLM
Critics say grazing plan threatens some ecosystems

The Bureau of Land Management's proposal for long-term management of its land in southwest Wyoming has prompted plenty of debate over how much oil and gas drilling should be allowed.

But one group protesting the plan isn't concerned about energy development. The Idaho-based Western Watersheds Project says the BLM plans for both the Pinedale and Kemmerer areas lack sufficient study about the negative affects of livestock grazing on the ecosystem.

"Our angle is to speak up for the soil, the plants, the watershed function, the sage grouse, the mule deer, the kinds of things that can't speak up for themselves basically," Jonathon Ratner, director of the Wyoming office of the Western Watersheds Project, said in a telephone interview from Pinedale.

In response, ranching representatives say modern grazing practices actually enhance the ecosystem.

Ratner said the organization will be contesting about two dozen similar BLM plans in Utah, Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Oregon on the livestock issue.

"They all suffer from the same problems," he said.

Southwest Wyoming contains rich deposits of natural gas, habitat for wildlife and thousands of acres of grazing land.

The BLM is issuing new plans for the area that will guide the agency's long-term management of federal lands in the area, whether it be used for oil and gas development, grazing, recreation or other activities.

The agency is now in the phase of its planning where it considers protests of its plan before issuing a final decision. The most contentious plan involves the Pinedale area, encompassing about 1,875 square miles of mineral estate.

Kellie Roadifer, BLM planning and environmental coordinator for the Pinedale area, said the agency's Pinedale plan drew 13 protests, 12 of which deal with oil and gas and sage grouse issues.

Grazing used to be the overriding point of contention for BLM lands, but that has shifted with the oil and gas boom, Roadifer said.

"Attention has shifted from livestock grazing to oil and gas," she said. "Years ago it was common for a lot of the stuff that we got to be involving livestock grazing."

But the Western Watersheds Project is keeping the grazing issue alive. It contends grazing does slow, long-term damage to the sensitive ecosystem and over a vastly larger area than oil and gas development.

"Now I'm not discounting the impacts of oil and gas, but oil and gas at this point has severely impacted a tiny fraction of our public lands acreage in the state of Wyoming," Ratner said.

He said grazing alters the soil, upland and riparian areas, and affects how the ecosystem handles water, changing the land into more of a desert environment.

Western Watersheds Project maintains that if the BLM just enforced its regulations, it would result in a reduction in livestock grazing on federal land.

"In the long run livestock grazing in the arid West is neither economically feasible and sustainable, nor ecologically feasible or sustainable," Ratner said. "So in the long run it's got to go."

Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, said ranching in much of Wyoming isn't possible without grazing on federal land.

Losing the grazing allotments would force ranchers out of business. That could result in the subdivision of rural areas or force working ranchers to sell their land to recreational ranchers, Magagna said.

"From an economic perspective, maintaining agriculture in the state, most of which is livestock grazing, is critically important to a long term future," he said. "And then aside from those economics, I think you have to look at the fact that a lot of the local communities continue to be built around agriculture."

Magagna said overgrazing in the past did cause damage to ecosystems.

"But the livestock grazing that's done today is done under some very sound, well-established science as to impacting the resource," he said. "And in fact I would argue and I think there is plenty of information out there from range professionals to support it, that properly done it enhances the ecosystem. It does not degrade the ecosystem. And most livestock grazing today is done under those types of principles, both on federal land and on private land."

Friday, October 10, 2008

Western group petitions for species protection

A tortoise, a hare, a mouse and a half-dozen mussels.

These are just some of the animals and plants that a Western conservation group is seeking protections for under the Endangered Species Act as part of several in-depth petitions filed Thursday with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

WildEarth Guardians said the petitions—filed as part of its "Western Ark" project to gain protections for more species in the region—cover a diverse group of 13 plants and animals with ranges that span more than a dozen states and stretch into Mexico and Canada.

"We deliberately wanted to petition at once for a variety of plants and animals and this is to underscore that the Endangered Species Act really is like Noah's ark," said Nicole Rosmarino, wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians. "We want as many species that are in need to board the ark as possible."

Elizabeth Slown, a spokeswoman for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Albuquerque, said officials will look over the petition to "see whether there is enough information and substantial argument for us to pursue determining whether these plants and animals should be under endangered species protection."

WildEarth Guardians reviewed the status of hundreds of species—including mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates—looking for those that had the best cases for protection under the federal act.

"We really wanted a wide range just to demonstrate to the government and the public that that's what this law is all about," Rosmarino said. "The Endangered Species Act is all about protecting the rich tapestry of life."

The eight petitions filed Thursday are the latest salvo in the battle the group has been waging against the federal government over endangered species listings. WildEarth Guardians points out that the polar bear was the first U.S. species to be listed in over two years and that all of the listings under the Bush administration have been prompted by either citizen petitions or legal action.

WildEarth Guardians in the past year has petitioned for protections for hundreds of species, including prairie wildflowers, butterflies, amphibians, fishes, snails, trees and cactus.

The Fish and Wildlife Service vowed at the beginning of this year to make a dent in the backlog of species needing to be reviewed for possible ESA protection. In a step toward that goal, the agency announced last month it was taking a new, ecosystem-based approach to the endangered species list and proposing an all-at-once addition of 48 Hawaiian species to list.

Asked whether this new approach would help with petitions such as those filed by WildEarth Guardians, Rosmarino said the approach makes sense and is long overdue but the administration still has a lot of catching up to do.

She added that her group will keep plugging away with petitions and legal pressure.

"If nothing else, we're going to greet the next administration with a long line of passengers that urgently need to board the ark that the Endangered Species Act provides," she said.

Nearly all the species listed in the petitions filed Thursday face a common threat of climate change, including the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse, the Jemez Mountains salamander, the white-sided jackrabbit and the Sonoran desert tortoise.

The tortoise, which ranges across southern Arizona and Sonora, Mexico, is the focus of one petition filed jointly by WildEarth Guardians and the Western Watersheds Project. The groups say the tortoise's population has been reduced by more than half since 1987, and that urban sprawl, off-roading and grazing continue to put pressure on the species.

In addition, long droughts brought on by climate change are expected to result in less food and lower reproduction rates for the tortoise, the groups say.

Rosmarino said drought is also likely to have an impact on the white-sided jackrabbit's grassland habitat.

Without federal protection, Rosmarino said conservationists worry that the tortoise and the jackrabbit—like the other species listed in the petitions—might be lost.

She quipped that the tortoise and the hare are not racing each other but are "in a race with extinction and neither of them has an interest in winning that race."

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

NM approves cougar hunt changes, ID course

Mountain lion management in New Mexico is changing and wildlife advocates say it's for the better, with new protections for female cats and their kittens and the end of a cougar-snaring program.

But the changes aren't sitting well with ranchers and others in southeastern New Mexico.

The state Game Commission, at its meeting last week, approved a voluntary hunter education course to teach hunters the difference between male and female cats to ensure that more breeding females are left in the wild.

Commissioners also voted in favor of setting a limit on how many cougars can be harvested around the state and how many of those can be female cats. If the number of female kills comes within 10 percent of the limit in a given hunting unit, conservation officers can shut down hunting in that particular area.

"New Mexicans and the Game Commission understand that cougars are icons of majesty and wildness. These hunting reforms not only enhance conservation of the species, but reduce the ethical dilemma associated with orphaned cougar kittens," said Wendy Keefover-Ring of WildEarth Guardians.

The commission also approved a department recommendation to end the preventative cougar control program in southeastern New Mexico, which was aimed at reducing depredation of livestock.

Environmentalists criticized the program, saying the state was spending tens of thousands of dollars a year to benefit a few livestock owners.

But Debbie Hughes, whose family ranches along the Guadalupe Mountains in southeastern New Mexico and holds the contract to snare the cougars, argued that the program has helped ranchers maintain their livelihoods and it has led to an increase in the area's once-declining deer population.

"To get this program nearly 24 years ago, we had to suffer extreme economic losses," Hughes said. "We went to hundreds of meetings and took hundreds of pictures and wrote hundreds of letters to prove and document all of these losses. And it was like none of that mattered, they just threw it all out the window."

Hughes said she fears depredation of livestock and deer will increase without the control program. She noted that the Guadalupe Mountains National Park and Carlsbad Caverns National Monument do not allow hunting and that cougars often fan out from the parks to the nearby ranches.

Hughes, who also serves as executive director of the New Mexico Association of Conservation Districts, said safety is another concern.

"We have had in this state three human attacks by mountain lions in the past six months," Hughes said, referring to cases near Albuquerque, Taos and Silver City. "That right there tells the whole story. The mountain lion population is totally out of control."

Wildlife activists, however, couldn't disagree more.

WildEarth Guardians and Animal Protection of New Mexico contend that the number of cougars killed on private land has more than doubled in recent years and too many female cats are being killed during hunting season, resulting in abandoned kittens and lost breeding opportunities for the species.

The groups also dispute the idea that cougar control programs would increase safety. Keefover-Ring said several studies have found no evidence that hunting or snaring reduces human attacks.

Game Commission chairman Tom Arvas acknowledged that ranchers are concerned about the cougar management changes, but said he believes the game department is doing a good job at managing the species' population.

"I think in some of the public's eye, we're still not doing enough," Arvas said. "We try to make everyone happy."

Monday, October 6, 2008

Officers seek removal of game director

The head of the New Mexico Game and Fish Department has had his hunting license revoked for illegally killing a deer on private land. Now, conservation officers who work for him want him to step down or be replaced.

Director Bruce Thompson lost his hunting privileges in New Mexico and more than two dozen other states when the New Mexico Game Commission voted Thursday to revoke his license for two years.

Thompson was accused of shooting a deer on the Diamond T Ranch in southeastern New Mexico during a hunt last November. It's illegal to hunt on private property in New Mexico without permission from the landowner.

Thompson, who had a valid deer hunting license, said he believed he was on U.S. Bureau of Land Management land, based on coordinates entered in his global positioning system unit.

Thompson has taken responsibility, but members of the New Mexico Conservation Officers Association claim the director's handling of the incident has given the department a bad name.

''It's frustrating for us,'' Colin Duff, president of the association, told The Associated Press on Friday. ''For a guy to be in that position, he's been convicted and is still signing laws that pertain to everybody else's hunting privileges, we don't really see how he can keep doing that.''

A letter from the association was read at Thursday's commission meeting, outlining the group's feelings about Thompson's leadership. The letter states Thompson ''should step aside and let a qualified and trustworthy person take the reins.''

Thompson said Friday he had not seen the letter, and he defended his ability to lead the department.

''You should examine the accomplishments that the department and the Game Commission have demonstrated over many years,'' he said, pointing to expanded sportsmen's opportunities, resource management projects and the department's access to nature program.

Thompson said that throughout his case, he encouraged the appropriate judicial and administrative processes to be used and that he not receive special treatment.

''I just asked that this be handled as things would be applied to any sportsman,'' he said, adding that he was proud of the commission and department staff's professionalism and integrity in dealing with the case.

Thompson, who was appointed by Gov. Bill Richardson in 2003, works at the commission's pleasure.

Despite the officers' request that the commission replace Thompson, chairman Tom Arvas said the matter was closed with the decision to revoke the director's license.

A message seeking comment was also left with Richardson's office on Friday.

Arvas said he didn't believe the license revocation would interfere with Thompson's ability to do his job.

Duff disagreed, saying that officers and the public have become frustrated with Thompson.

Thompson was convicted earlier this year of unlawful hunting and illegal possession of a deer because of the 2007 incident. He was ordered to serve 182 days of unsupervised probation and pay fines as a result of his no contest plea to the charges.

Despite the convictions, the association claims the director fought the revocation process, forcing his own employees to testify against him.

Duff said similar violations involving wildlife officials in other states have resulted in resignations or terminations long before court action.

''Why has New Mexico's leadership acted so differently? Why has this leader been afforded the ability to disrespect his agency for an entire year?'' Duff said in the letter. ''These are truly sad times for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish.''
Owyhees gets chance to pass the Senate, Congress this year

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he expects a vote on a lands bill after the election that includes protections for the Owyhee Canyonlands and ranching in Owyhee County.

The Senate will come back for a lame duck session Nov. 17.

"One thing we are going to move to is a land package," Reid said on the floor Wednesday soon after the passage of the financial rescue bill. "We have talked to everybody about this."

The bill includes Republican U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo's Owyhee legislation which was sent to the floor by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Crapo has worked hard for six years to hold together the coalition of ranchers and environmentalists who back his Owyhees bill. The bill would protect 517,000 acres as wilderness, another 315 miles of rivers as wild and scenic and help ranchers with a series of land transfers, buyouts and the establishment of a science center.

The bill also includes a bill to protect 387 miles of the Snake River and its tributaries in Wyoming under the Wild and Scenic Rivers bill. Crapo worked out problems in the Wyoming provision of the bill raised by Sen. Larry Craig and the Idaho Water Users Association.

Overall the bill contains more than 90 titles, including more than a half dozen wilderness measures to protect more than 900,000 acres of wild land in Oregon, Idaho, Colorado, Virginia and West Virginia.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Bruce Thompson's Hunting Privileges Revoked

The New Mexico Game Commission on Thursday revoked state Game and Fish Department director Bruce Thompson's hunting privileges for two years, the result of Thompson's shooting a deer on private property nearly a year ago in Lincoln County.

Thompson, who has headed Game and Fish since 2003, maintained that he inadvertently used incorrect Global Positioning System coordinates that put him on the privately owned Diamond T Ranch instead of adjacent public land.

In New Mexico, it is illegal to hunt on private property without written permission from the landowner. Although Thompson had a valid hunting license, he did not have the required permission to hunt on the Diamond T.

Thompson unsuccessfully contested the citation, issued by a Game and Fish officer, before a hearing officer last month. Though the Game Commission could have suspended Thompson's hunting privileges for three years, Joe Canepa, a Santa Fe attorney who served as the hearing officer, recommended a two-year suspension.

Thompson confirmed that the Game Commission, at its Thursday meeting in Alamogordo, accepted Canepa's recommendation and suspended his hunting privileges for two years.

"I'm pleased and proud of the department and the commission for allowing the appropriate judicial and administrative processes to work as they would be applied to any sportsman," Thompson said Thursday evening via phone. "That was completed today, and we should move on with conserving wildlife in New Mexico."

Thompson was fined $500 in state District Court in June after pleading no contest to a combined charge of unlawful hunting and illegal possession in connection with the November hunt.

The incident raised concerns among members of the New Mexico Conservation Officers Association about Thompson's leadership.
Cougar attack recounted for game commission

Bogged down in public comment, the New Mexico State Game Commission listened to opinions about a single issue all afternoon.

The commission met in Alamogordo Thursday with the big game hunting rules for 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 seasons on the agenda. When agenda tem No. 11 came up, so did the speakers. The item was on the adoption of amendments to a bear and cougar rule.

Commissioner Leo Sims of Hobbs handed out an adjusted amendment which offered more support to area ranchers.

During the comment period Charlotte Salazar stood with her 5-year-old son Jose Salazar Jr.

"My son was attacked," Charlotte said.

As the Salazar family walked a well-used path on May 17 in the Sandia Mountains above Albuquerque, the boy ran ahead a little bit, she said.

"A mountain lion jumped out of a bush, jumped on him and started clawing his body," she said. "He was grabbed by the head and dragged 300 feet down a hillside."

The boy's father, Jose Salazar, dove after the child and lion. Damaging his ankle and breaking his thumb, Jose reached the lion and child and was able to grab the boy as the animal ran away.

"He had his scalp ripped back and puncture wounds were all over his back and neck," Charlotte said.

In response to a board member's earlier comment that it had not been proven the incident was caused by a mountain lion, Charlotte said they pulled fur from the child's clothing and saliva from his shoe. The DNA tests showed a 95 percent chance the animal actually was a mountain lion.

Charlotte said the commission should not limit year-round cougar hunting and should focus on reducing the number of animals as there are too many in the state.

A number of Guadalupe mountain area ranchers from the southeastern corner of New Mexico talked about the problems involved with increasing cougar numbers in their area.

They said it is nearly impossible to hunt mountain lions with dogs as the scent can't be easily followed and prints don't show up on rocks.

An increase in the cougar population is responsible for the reduction of sheep farmers in a land traditionally perfect for raising sheep, farmers alleged.

Also, challengers said changing the year-round hunting capability to a specific season will harm the ranchers' ability to protect their stock.

"Taking away year-round hunting would hurt the ranchers," Otero Mesa rancher Bebo Lee told the commission.

Mike Cassebonne, president of the New Mexico Federal Lands Council, said there are still quite a few ranchers who raise sheep in Guadalupe mountain area.

"The precipitation cycle is creating an increase in predators generally," Cassebonne said. "The need still exists for this predation program. I can't see the benefits in managing for an increase in lion population."

Cassebonne said when the game commission makes a decision it should be consistent with wildlife management practices.

State Sen. Tim Jennings from the southeastern corner of the state said he was once a sheep man himself.

"It was better for everybody when we had sheep," Jennings said. "We were driven out by the game department. Mountain lions were the main problem."

Jennings said rules prohibiting the animals from being trapped or snared are silly.

"I like to make my living off the land and you guys have ruined the land," he said.

Many ranchers, Jennings pointed out, raise stock on land leased from the federal government.

"What are we going to do with a law that says you can only trap on private land?" Jennings asked. "You get to sell the permits and I get to pay for it. It's not fair.

"I've watched you ruin one of the best sheep countries in the whole world."

Another part of the new game hunting rule involves killing fewer female cougars and more males.

Wendy Keefover-Ring with the WildEarth Guardians said her organization would like to see more encouragement of a program to educate hunters on how to tell male and female mountain lions apart.

She also talked about mandating a female sub-limit on hunting and said the group would like to encourage it.

Jess Gilliland of Tularosa was offended by the idea. He said his family has been hunting cougars and hasn't killed a female in 20 years.

"We don't want to kill females," he said.

One of the game commissioners said the education element is not only for those who know how to identify females but to help those new to hunting the animal.

Gilliland also said that shortening the bear season would be unfair.

In the end the game commission voted to adopt the suggested amendments to the bear and cougar rules and added adjustments to the amendments as suggested by Sims.

The meeting continued past presstime Thursday.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

NM judge rules on Mexican gray wolf ordinance

A federal judge has dismissed environmentalists' concerns over a western New Mexico county's ordinance regarding endangered Mexican gray wolves, saying the county amended the measure to remove provisions that would have allowed it to immediately trap or remove wolves from the wild.

WildEarth Guardians had sued Catron County in U.S. District Court in Santa Fe, alleging that an ordinance passed last year by the county violated the federal Endangered Species Act and was invalid.

U.S. District Judge Martha Vazquez issued a ruling Tuesday that said the group's claims were moot since the county had amended the ordinance to remove provisions that authorized county officials to take action against wolves that were deemed to be threats to people.

However, Vazquez did not rule on WildEarth Guardians' claim that the county commission allegedly violated federal law when it targeted a pair of wolves for trapping last year.

WildEarth Guardians sees the ruling as a partial victory.

"What the court did was provide much needed clarity that the current law in Catron County does not authorize unilateral wolf removals," Melissa Hailey, an attorney for WildEarth Guardians, said Wednesday.

The group had complained that the county's original ordinance, adopted in February 2007, permitted county officials to immediately trap or remove wolves even though the animals were the responsibility of the federal government.

The county commission adopted an amended ordinance in April 2007 that allows it to demand that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service remove a wolf that is determined to be a threat or that the agency authorize a designated county officer to remove the wolf.

County Manager Bill Aymar said Wednesday commissioners have a responsibility to keep residents safe.

"We're not playing a game, we're just trying to protect the citizen who has a bunch of little kids," he said. "It isn't going to do us any good to play political games if a wolf comes and bites one of those kids."

Aymar pointed to a recent case in which a Cruzville mother reported that an uncollared wolf killed family pets and attacked a horse on her property.

After sending a letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requesting that the wolf be removed, Aymar said federal officials put up an electric wire and flags around the woman's property to dissuade the animal from returning. He said the county is waiting to see if that works.

"We're dealing with the reality of the situation as opposed to the nice esoteric discussion about the theoretical side of it," he said. "We have wolves here going on people's property attacking their pets, attacking their animals. Do we allow it to come to the place where a wolf attacks a child? No, we can't."

WildEarth Guardians pointed out that the court has yet to rule on whether the county violated federal law by trying to trap a pair of wolves in June and November 2007. The group has asked for a permanent injunction to stop the county's trapping activities.

"We remain committed to keeping Mexican wolves in the wild," said Rob Edward, carnivore recovery director for WildEarth Guardians. "Each and every Mexican wolf is essential to the survival of this critically endangered population."

The federal government has been reintroducing the wolves to the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area—more than 4 million acres of the Gila and Apache Sitgreaves national forests in southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona plus Arizona's White Mountain Apache reservation, interspersed with private land and towns.

The program began in March 1998 when the Fish and Wildlife Service released 11 wolves that were bred in captivity. Officials with the reintroduction program had predicted that by now, there would be a self-sustaining wild population of 100 wolves.

The recovery area had 52 wolves as of January 2008, and that number has fluctuated with wolf deaths and removals, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency conducts one count of wild wolves annually.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Like polar bear, wolverine is threatened by global warming, Montana lawsuit claims

Charging that politics have trumped science, conservationists are challenging the federal government’s refusal to provide wolverines with Endangered Species Act protections.

“The wolverine is facing serious threats to its survival in the Lower 48 states, yet the Bush administration made a political decision not to protect this species,” said Tim Preso.

Decisions regarding sensitive species, he said, “are supposed to be based on science, not politics.”

Preso serves as counsel at Earthjustice, and is representing a coalition of 10 environmental groups in a lawsuit on behalf of the wolverine. On Tuesday, he filed the action in Missoula’s U.S. District Court.

According to Preso, plaintiffs have unearthed documents showing that federal officials overruled biologists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, including scientists who had concluded wolverines are “warranted” for protections.

The Bush administration, plaintiffs charge, meddled with the science in order to avoid a second Endangered Species Act listing related to climate change. (In May, the polar bear was listed as threatened, largely due to habitat loss resulting from a warming planet.)

Wolverines, the groups allege, are likewise at risk from climate change because the animals depend on areas that remain snowbound well into spring, when females dig snow dens to give birth.

But spring snowpack, scientists say, is in decline, a trend that is predicted to worsen.

Wolverine populations also are threatened by trapping and human encroachment into mountain habitat, plaintiffs charge.

The secretive and wide-ranging members of the weasel family resemble small bears, and are most often associated with remote alpine country that remains snow-covered much of the year.

“Recent scientific studies,” the suit alleges, “document that areas of wolverine habitat have already lost up to 30 percent of their historic spring snowpack, and reductions could increase to 60 percent of historic levels by 2090.”

Largely isolated from Canadian populations by human development, the animals are thought to be declining in the Lower 48.

In their review, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists acknowledged those concerns, stating that “the small effective population size [e.g., the number of breeding pairs] in the contiguous U.S. wolverine population has led to inbreeding and consequent loss of genetic diversity.”

Over time, the review concludes, local populations could be at risk of extinction.

In denying protections, however, Fish and Wildlife Service brass said ample wolverines persist in Canada, and the U.S. population is not significant to survival of the overall species.

“I can’t comment on the lawsuit,” said agency spokesperson Diane Katzenberger, “but I would say that the Fish and Wildlife Service stands by its finding.”

The problem with a listing, she said, is that the U.S. population is not distinct from Canadian wolverines, nor is the U.S. population critical to the overall North American population.

But conservationists contend that reasoning represents an “about-face” from other listing decisions, including lynx, grizzly bears and wolves, all of which enjoy strong populations in Canada’s wilds.

The groups n which include Defenders of Wildlife, Center for Biological Diversity, Conservation Northwest, Friends of the Clearwater, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Idaho Conservation League, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center and Wyoming Outdoor Council n expressed their concerns in a July letter to the Fish and Wildlife Service, but have not yet received a response.

“This leaves us no choice but to file suit and try to reverse the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision before it is too late for wolverines in the West,” said David Gaillard, of Defenders of Wildlife.

The 32-page action filed Tuesday asks the court to void Fish and Wildlife’s March 11 denial, and require the agency to reconsider.

Katzenberger said the Fish and Wildlife Service has no intention of abandoning its earlier decision, but did say “if new information becomes available, we certainly would look at that.”