At a gathering last week of ranchers, businessmen, Catron County residents, and representatives of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Forest Service, several people spoke to the agency representatives about the Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Program and how it is impacting lives and businesses. The people met at Hugh B. and Margie McKeen’s property where the McKeens have proposed remediation on the San Francisco River.
To a question about possible changes to the wolf program, Benjamin Tuggle, regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Southwest Region, said he is not in favor of changing any of the promises made in the environmental impact statement.
“We have to modify the protocol,' Tuggle said. “We have moved away from biology in the management of the wolves. We have to look at the carrying capacity, pack dynamics and enough land space.
“How will it change?' he asked rhetorically. “We will look at the biology. At the same time, we have to weave in the socio-economic factors. I know there is an impact on the rancher.'
He said his agency is working to get interdiction funding to reimburse cattle losses.
“My background is in biology,' Tuggle said, “but I have people and economics to work with. The law says biology, but not half-baked biology. Biology represents recovery. How can I work with you to help recovery? We cannot continue to lose wolves, but must move toward a sustainable population, however many that is.'
Alan Tackman, Catron County rancher, spoke with emotion and sometimes seemed on the verge of tears.
“One day I was pulling a trailer with cattle in the front and horses in the back, when wolves chased us,' Tackman said. “They aren’t wild. She came right up beside my truck. Female 923 stood looking at me. I told her I wasn’t going to feed her.'
Last year, Tackman reported losing 15 grown, productive cows, and 20 to 30 of his 150 calves last year. Between eight and 10 of the cows died due to wolf depredation and the others probably succumbed to bear attacks and eating toxic weeds.
“I was constantly finding dead stuff,' Tackman said. “The country is so rough that it would be two or three days before I would find the carcasses.'
In July, he also found five injured calves with bite marks corresponding to the width of wolf teeth. In August, the district ranger allowed him to move one-third of his cattle to a grazing permit 60 miles from his property.
At the time, he said, he was told by Matt Wunder of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish that the department did not care how many calves were killed, “they weren’t going to remove the wolves.'
Tackman was faced with the Dark Canyon Pack denning on his fence line and raising pups. To protect his cattle, he moved them from the area close to the den. As a result, the wolves moved to the neighboring ranch and that rancher had to move his cattle to his winter grazing area.
“So the wolves came back to us,' Tackman said. “The bottom line for us is that wolf depredation is costing me $20,000 a year.
“I’ve tried everything,' Tackman continued. “I kept the cows in with the calves. I rode the range and had additional range riders, but the wolves hunt at night. It’s a pretty hard thing to swallow. We don’t only have the Dark Canyon Pack, but the Luna Pack comes over. Both have killed on my pasture.'
He said one night the telemetry apparatus he has been issued to keep track of the collared wolves was indicating a wolf in the vicinity, but he could not spot it, until it came out of the corral.
“The wolves come to the pen every couple of days,' Tackman said. “They leave their calling card and it’s full of hair. It isn’t elk hair; it’s cow hair. All summer the wolf scat had cow hair in it.'
He said John Oakleaf of the recovery program has been honest with him, and Tackman praised the efforts of the ranger to help him relocate his cattle, but it “makes me want to cry. I’ve spent my whole adult life building my ranch.'
Tackman was approached by John Horning of WildEarth Guardians asking him to retire his permit and the organization would pay him for it.
“(My family and I) talked about retiring and selling the permit so we could keep living here,' Tackman said. “I called him back to tell him yes, and he said the organization couldn’t afford it.'
Although ostensibly Defenders of Wildlife has a reimbursement program for cattle losses due to wolf depredation, Tackman said he has been paid for one cow in 10 years.
“ I don’t even call anymore,' he said. “Build a wolf sanctuary or something, but don’t keep killing us.'
Tackman said three of his ranching neighbors have sold their land and moved away because of the wolf.
Bucky Allred, owner of the Blue Front Café in Glenwood, said that late last summer his daughter, Sarah, and a Blue Front Café employee, Dave Hathaway, saw what they believed was a wolf at the Catron County landfill. The next morning, she reported it to the Catron County wolf investigator, Jess Carey, who was in the field investigating a wolf kill.
The same day, Allred received a call from a biologist at the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish who said he was passing along a message that the site had been checked by a U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service wolf officer. The report said he found only quail, skunk, and dog or coyote tracks.
Allred asked how the officer how found the site, because only his daughter and employee knew where the wolf had been seen. The biologist told Allred he had no idea and didn’t care. He was just passing on the message.
The next day, Carey was shown the place where the wolf had been sighted and he took six castings of a wolf track.
Allred told the Daily Press that he was trying to convey to Tuggle that the wolf officers didn’t care about the residents, their children or their pets.
“ They just have their marching papers and that’s all they care about,' he said.
He also reported that the Catron County wolf investigator has taken castings of wolf paw prints in residential areas.
“ With all due respect,' Allred said to Tuggle, “ I want to see you have to haul the wolves out.'
Allred said his business depends on tourists and hunters.
“You told us in meetings before the wolves were released into Catron County that tourists would come to see the wolves,' he said. “I haven’t met a single tourist for wolves. It makes it hard to do business, because the program is pushing away hunters, tourists and other forest-user groups I depend on for my living. The wolves will run us all off.
“I want the program out of here,' Allred continued. “ We want to participate with you with integrity, but my business is drying up, especially during hunting season.'
“ Three years ago, we believed you,' Tackman said. “ But help needs to be quick. Last summer was hell for me. The bottom line is: wolves kill.
“I saw 120 elks calving,' he said. “I saw the wolves move in. The elk left and the wolves moved into the cows and calves. I can’t blame the wolf. It’s going to eat.'
Another resident, Tim Klumker, said he has to baby sit his neighbor ’ s dogs whenever she leaves, because wolves have attacked the dogs.
Tackman said the reality is that if ranching takes place where there are wolves, the rancher is going to lose cows.
“ I guess the rabid environmentalists are going to win and that’s wrong,' he said.
Corbin Newman, U. S. Forest Service regional forester, asked Tackman if funding to pay for cattle losses due to wolf depredation would help.
“ I know some people won’t agree with me,' Tackman said, “ but I’ll raise cows to feed wolves. I’m doing it anyway.'
Alex Thal, who works with Western New Mexico University, pointed out that replacing beef cattle with cull cattle would replace all aspects of ranching management.
“ People raise cattle to feed people, not wolves,' Thal said.
Ed Wehrheim, Catron County Commission chairman, said he knows a woman who has to open her door with a gun and check to make sure no wolves are around before she lets her children out to play.
“ In Catron County, ranchers pay 48 percent of our taxes,' Wehrheim said. “We’re already losing revenue.'
Tuggle said any wolves hanging around people “ have to go, and part of my duty is recognizing that implementing the program has an impact on you.'
He said he had talked to the Jones family the day they were moving out after having sold their ranch.
“ I’m going to work not to have to talk to another family like that,' Tuggle said.
“ You’re talking about paying for cows like you’d pay for a bale of hay,' Margie McKeen said. “We’re small ranchers. We get attached to our cattle. We even name some of them.'
Klumker pointed out that the cattle raised in the area are acclimatized and to replace those lost sometimes requires buying several before finding ones that can live and produce well in the region.
When Tackman said the wolves feed primarily on elk and cattle, and “not the deer as it said in the EIS,' Tuggle changed course and said that was why the EIS needed to be changed.
Wehrheim asked what the relationship is between the USFWS and the NMDGF.
Tuggle said they are partners and try to work together as closely as possible.
“ Ultimately, when it comes to the removal of wolves, it’s my decision,' Tuggle said.
He said the three- strike rule of depredation by a wolf would continue, but “ with modifications. We may have to have a fourth strike, but we have to make the right call with ranchers. The wolf program is not a success if it’s impacting a rancher.'
Wehrheim pointed out that moisture has been abundant the past few years, with 80 percent of cattle reproducing and 50 percent elk reproduction, but in a drought, cattle reproduction will drop to 40 percent or even 20 percent and “all the ranchers will be out of business, because of the wolves.'
To a question posed about the Road Management Rule, Newman said he would return to the area to answer questions.
“It’s a national program,' Newman said. “ Richard ( Markley, Gila Forest supervisor) came to me and said we hadn’t spent enough time listening to people and he’s right. I am committed to hearing from you. Nothing is more basic to the national forest than having people accessing it and using it.'
He did warn that some roads would be closed and cross- country travel across the forest would be prohibited, but “you need to have the ability to use (all-terrain vehicles) in the course of your work.'
McKeen said he was “ humbled and gratified' by the representatives’ presence on his property, but asked for swift action to remedy what began as a small problem and increased to a large problem in the river.
“ All together we have to make a decision to look at protecting your private property rights and the Southwestern willow flycatcher habitat,' Tuggle said, “but I don’t see it as something that can’t be done.'
—MARY ALICE MURPHY