Wednesday, July 29, 2009

NM Legislative Land Grant Committee to Hold Public Meeting in Taos July 30-31

The legislative interim Land Grant Committee will meet in the Rio Grande Hall of the Taos Convention Center on July 30th and then tour the Cristobal de la Serna Land Grant on July 31st, according to a statement released by the NM House. The public is encouraged to attend.

“This is the first of our annual round of taking the Committee to the ‘home ground’ of our land grant communities for our interim meetings. During this meeting we will get a first-hand view of the issues our community land grants are facing in the region surrounding Taos. I am particularly looking forward to our tour of the Cristobal de la Serna Land Grant," said Representative Miguel P. Garcia (D-Bernalillo-14), Chair of the Committee.

"We will also be taking a look at how some of the legislation we passed during the last legislative session is being implemented and how that implementation is filtering down to the local community land grants. Some of that legislation dealt with tort liability coverage for community land grants as governmental entities, and also with tailoring the financial reporting required for governmental entities to smaller entities like community land grants," said Senator Richard C. Martinez (D-Los Alamos, Rio Arriba & Santa Fe-5), Vice-Chair of the Committee.

On Thursday, July 30th, the Committee will convene at 10:00 AM and will first hear from Darren Cordova, Mayor of Taos, Daniel R. Barone, Chair of the Taos County Commission and Representative Roberto "Bobby" J. Gonzales (D-Taos-42) or their representatives. At 10:30 AM, Joe Romero, President of the Cristobal de la Serna Land Grant will them provide the Committee with a history of that land grant and update them on the land grant’s current issues. At 11:15 AM the Committee will be briefed by Joanna Prukop, Secretary of Energy Minerals and Natural Resources on the Senate Bill 32 which provides tax credits for land conservation incentives and how the legislation can be applied to benefit community and grants.

After breaking for lunch, the Committee will reconvene at 1:30 PM when Al Duran, General Counsel of the General Services Department’s Risk Management Division (RMD), and Paula Ganz, RMD Staff Attorney, will address Senate Bill 59, which provides for land grant tort liability coverage under the state’s Tort Claims Act. At 2:30 PM, Evan Blackstone, General Counsel for the Office of the State Auditor, will brief the Committee on how the tiered financial reporting system provided for by Senate Bill 336 will be implemented.

At 3:15 PM, the Committee has invited the Rio Costilla Cooperative Livestock Association to report on its current operations and programs. At 4:00 PM the Committee will be briefed on the Arroyo Hondo Land Grant’s history and the current issues it faces. At 4:45 PM, the Committee will conclude its business for the day with a presentation by Juan Sanchez, President of the Chilili Land Grant on the status of the nominating process for creating a land grant council.

On Friday, July 31st beginning at 9:00 AM, the Committee will be taken on a tour of the Cristobal de la Serna Land Grant and the Arroyo Honda Land Grant and their facilities by officials and representatives of the two community land grants. The gathering place for the tour will be determined during the meeting of the preceding day.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Recovery of Mexican gray wolves remains elusive

Something has gone awry -- some would say everything has -- in the federal government's effort to reestablish the population of Mexican wolves, North America's most endangered mammal.

Beginning with an initial release of 11 wolves in 1998, the Mexican wolf population in the Southwest was projected to reach at least 100 by 2006. Three years beyond, the number of wolves in the wild is half that.

Wildlife managers -- following the program's often punitive rules -- have contributed to the deaths of more than 25 wolves through shooting, trapping, sedating, penning and relocating the notoriously skittish animals.

A wolf slated for capture died of hyperthermia after a helicopter chase. At least eight wolves died of stress in holding pens. Six pups were killed when placed in the care of another captive pack. The program's most-photographed wolf -- Brunhilda, a young female in the first pack -- died after federal biologists captured her to perform a routine check; the animal became stressed and overheated during the examination and died.

On paper, Gila National Forest was the logical place to reintroduce the Mexican gray wolf. The 3.3 million acres of densely treed slopes, spare grasslands and desert scrub in the nation's first designated wilderness area are stocked with plentiful elk and deer that make up the bulk of wolves' diet.

But endangered-species biology plays out on a complicated landscape of emotion, politics and power -- never on paper.

Critics of the program, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials who designed it, say the Mexican wolf reintroduction has been a dismal failure, falling short of most of its goals. Pup survival rates are far lower than expected, adult wolf mortality higher than projected, and the recovery program is way behind the timeline that federal biologists established.

"We are witnessing the second extinction of the Mexican wolf in the wild," said Michael Robinson, a conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, one of several groups suing the federal government for "failing to recover" the wolf.

"It's the worst-case example abrogation of Endangered Species Act responsibility that I've seen, in many regards," said Jamie Clark, the former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and now executive vice president of the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife.

"Everybody knows what's wrong," she added. "Nobody will lead their way out. No one is taking responsibility."

Benjamin Tuggle, the Southwest regional director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Albuquerque, said there was much he disliked about the program he inherited.

"We've made some mistakes on our own," he said. "We've cost the lives of wolves. I don't want you to think that I am comfortable with where we are in handling these wolves, because I'm not.

"What I'm looking at, however, is a system that is not functioning at its optimum potential."

Endangered species

Gray wolves once roamed widely throughout the Southwest and Mexico, but decades of government extermination programs to support livestock interests rendered the species functionally extinct. The Mexican gray wolf was placed on the federal endangered species list in 1976.

By the 1990s, when the recovery program was conceived, there were fewer than 200 Mexican wolves remaining in North America, nearly all of them in zoos or research facilities. Trappers managed to capture seven wild wolves in Mexico, and those animals became the genetic forebears of the current population.

The first year of the reintroduction set the tone for a troubled program. The first wolf released was illegally shot and killed. Four more met the same fate. The first Mexican wolf pup born in the wild in more than 70 years was presumed dead after its mother was shot. By the end of the year, the Fish and Wildlife Service recaptured the rest of the released wolves and penned them for their own safety.

For a decade, the gray wolf program has limped along, undone, critics say, by measures that penalize the animals for behaving as wolves do.

For example, wolves that stray out of the designated recovery area along the New Mexico-Arizona border are captured, penned and relocated elsewhere in the recovery zone, where the animals then must relearn the geography and locate food and water sources. Ninety-three wayward wolves were "translocated" through 2008.

Perhaps the most controversial policy is the so-called three-strikes rule that was formalized in 2005, when the Fish and Wildlife Service allowed officials in Arizona and New Mexico to set wolf policies.

Under the rule, any wolf that has killed three cows or calves in one year must be "removed" -- shot or placed in captivity indefinitely. Wolves killed 22 cows and calves in 2007, according to Fish and Wildlife.

Policies such as these have created a revolving door that shuttles wolves from holding pens to the wild and back again, hampering adaptation, breeding and pack dynamics.

Those results run counter to the intentions of a captive-breeding program, which ideally should leave wolves able to fend for themselves in the wild without human assistance.

Periodic independent studies commissioned by Fish and Wildlife have consistently criticized the system.

One reviewer remarked: "Frequent social disruption via mortality, recaptures and re-releases have altered the natural territorial behavior of packs. . . . These manipulations may be interfering with pack formation."

"Heavy-handed management from now to forever is not a goal that we should be seeking in this program," said David Parsons, who led the Fish and Wildlife Service's Mexican wolf recovery program from 1990 to 1999.

"There is a price to pay when you are doing a lot of capturing and handling of animals. The idea is to put an animal back into nature and allow [it] to exist like any other animal in nature."

Changes coming

Tuggle, the Fish and Wildlife regional director, said changes were coming.

"I understand the concept of manipulation," he said. "Where we have done those things, they have been disruptive. They have affected the pack dynamics. I'm not a proponent of managing them at the same level that we have been managing them."

But Tuggle will have to face a powerful interest group -- the region's livestock industry, which vigorously opposed wolf reintroduction.

Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers' Assn., said her organization estimated that 1,500 cattle had been killed by wolves in the 11 years since reintroduction.

"Some people say in 11 years that's not a lot of cows, but multiply that by $1,000 per animal, and that's a lot," she said.

Defenders of Wildlife compensates ranchers as much as $3,000 for each animal killed by wolves, and biologists say cattle make up only about 4% of wolves' diet.

The wolf-livestock conflicts persist because, as designed, the gray wolf recovery program placed the animals in harm's way -- smack into an area where federal land is leased for year-round cattle grazing.

In contrast, Canadian wolves released into the Yellowstone ecosystem are thriving, roaming an area that includes national parks and extensive wilderness free of humans and cattle.

Further, the northern Rockies wolf program requires ranchers to dispose of livestock carcasses to discourage wolf scavenging. The Mexican wolf program does not. The presence of cattle carcasses in Gila National Forest attracts wolves to livestock areas, tantalizing the packs with the option of killing slow-footed cattle, rather than having to chase fleet elk through rough country.

Ranchers insist that collecting dead cows on their federal grazing allotments is not possible, Cowan said.

Tuggle agreed that the socioeconomic landscape for the wolves is less than ideal.

"You've got these diametrically opposed forces: This predator that has a right to be in this space, and the other is this prey base, cattle, that has a right to be in this space," he said. "It doesn't take you long to cook that formula and come up with a pretty explosive situation."

As special interests and bureaucrats hash out their differences, Maggie Dwire, assistant wolf recovery coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service, hauls a wheelbarrow carrying a road-kill elk into pens at Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, a spare slice of the Chihuahuan Desert south of Albuquerque. The wolves in the half- to 1-acre enclosures were bred in captivity and are being prepared for release into the wild.

Dwire and veterinarian Susan Dicks say they limit their interactions with the wolves so they retain their natural fear of humans.

"That's good. We like to see that," Dicks said, watching three slender gray wolves run in circles and pant nervously as she and Dwire entered a pen with the elk carcass.

Their reaction to humans will protect them, Dwire said.

She shrugged when asked about the morass that lies ahead for wolves.

"What has been a success in this program is that captive-bred wolves have shown they can be released into the wild and know what to do," Dwire said. "They know how to be wolves. It would be good if we could ever let them do that."

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Save the habitat, kill the turtles

When -- in the name of heaven, I demand to know -- are those responsible for enforcing the Endangered Species Act going to do something about remediating the habitat devastation and starting to recover the minuscule remaining population, before it has dwindled past the point of no return, of that brave and noble beast, the poodle?

What? Are you serious, Vin? There are, like, 68 million domestic pet dogs in this country, and the poodle is the seventh most numerous breed. There are millions of poodles out there.

As a matter of fact, purebred poodles are among the 4 million to 6 million dogs euthanized in America each year because homes can't be found for them. America's dog and cat problem is not species extinction; it's overpopulation.

Well, to anyone tempted to respond in that manner, let me clarify for you what the Endangered Species Act is really all about. You see, the number of poodles living in domestic captivity doesn't count. Once we have succeeded in getting the noble poodle listed as threatened or endangered -- as it most certainly is, in the traditional range of its wild habitat -- all that will matter is the number of wild, untouched acres set aside. Once you've developed a house and a yard and put two happy poodles in it, for purposes of the federal ESA, you might as well have just shot the pups, because you have destroyed wild poodle habitat, and we are going to count your poodles as "taken," meaning dead. In fact, we may have to take steps to stop you from allowing them to breed, up to and including "euthanizing" your captive slave dogs, since "Unlimited breeding of an endangered species in captivity is something the community has to look into."

You think I'm making this up? Here in Las Vegas, Clark County's Desert Conservation Program -- a well-paid division of the county Department of Air Quality and Environmental Management -- is currently going hat in hand to the appropriate chain of federal agencies, asking "permission" to amend the so-called Desert Tortoise (and 77 other critters, including bugs and mosses) Habitat Plan, with the purpose of "allowing" the county to develop an additional 215,000 acres of adjoining stinking desert in the decades to come.

The theory, you see, is that any human activity which "moves dirt" destroys tortoise habitat, and cannot be allowed unless developers obtain federal permits for the "incidental take" of tortoises (regardless of whether a single tortoise is seen or killed), including a fee or fine of $550 per acre, which is used to build "tortoise fences" to keep the turtles from crossing the road to get to water, and so forth.

Wow. Under that theory, there must be practically no tortoises left in the Las Vegas Valley, which has now been heavily developed for decades. Right?

Actually, officials have rounded up more than 10,000 of the little buggers, right here in the Vegas Valley, turning them over to the Fish and Wildlife's Desert Tortoise Conservation Center, where they and their progeny are farmed out as pets, or for experiments. Those that aren't euthanized for having runny noses, you understand. Marci Henson of the county's Desert Conservation Program estimates about 2 percent of the poor little "threatened" reptiles get "euthanized."

("Run, little tortoises, run!" as former County Commissioner Don Schlesinger once put it.)

Sometimes, on a Saturday morning, I drive around this town, visiting garage sales. I've seen quite a few kids playing with their desert tortoises in their driveways. Cliven Bundy, the last cattle rancher in Clark County, tells me when the Kern River pipeline people came through and did a federally mandated tortoise population density study as part of their required Environmental Impact Statement, they found several times more tortoises per acre on the lands where the Bundys have water tanks for their cattle than they found in the hot, dry desert -- and literally 10 times the tortoise population density -- the highest densities recorded -- right here in the Las Vegas valley.

This isn't even counterintuitive. Early explorers found precious few tortoises in the dry Mojave desert, where the toothless reptiles struggle to find enough water and edible tender shoots. The Spaniards found only shells and thought them extinct. These animals developed in an ecosystem which had large toothy vegetarians -- deer, elk, whatever -- to crop back the brush, a role now filled only by cattle.

In the 1920s and 1930s, tortoise populations swelled artificially as ranchers ran cattle on these lands and killed the tortoises' main predators, the coyote and the raven.

As "environmentalists" have succeeded in running the ranchers off the land, the cattle have vanished, no one is any longer shooting coyotes and ravens, and thus tortoise populations have slumped back to historically normal levels.

Are there now more tortoises, or fewer, than when cattle grazed the land? How many tortoises are there? Fish and Wildlife is still working to establish a "baseline population number," Ms. Henson replies.

Twenty years after the tortoise received an "emergency listing" as a threatened species in 1989, they're still trying to establish a "baseline"? So when will they be able to tell us whether we have enough new tortoises, bred in their joyous cattle-free paradise, to de-list the species and allow humans to get back to developing our land as we see fit? Eighty years from now? Eight hundred?

Twenty years and no one has done a simple control experiment, releasing 300 tortoises on Cliven Bundy's grazed land with its water tanks and cattle, and another 300 tortoises on an adjoining dry, desolate and cattle-free valley, coming back three years later to count which valley has more tortoises and which seem healthier?

All this bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo is based on the presumption that any "human interference" with the dry and stinking desert ruins it as tortoises habitat, when the truth -- that tortoises actually do much better with people around, just like roaches and pigeons and hummingbirds -- stares us right in the face.

Cue "Thus Spake Zarathustra." Remove the blindfold, please. No, Mr. Tortoise, you haven't died and gone to heaven. We call this ... a golf course.

If they really wanted more tortoises, any old desert rat can tell them the solution is to shoot ravens and coyotes. Mind you, I'm not recommending that. We've got plenty of tortoises right now.

These people don't care about tortoises -- they're euthanizing them, for heaven's sake. The tortoise -- or whatever moss or bug or flycatcher eventually takes it place -- is merely a stand-in, a cat's paw, to give federal bureaucrats and their lunatic green pals complete control over development of private land in the West.

Just how fecund are those 10,000 captive tortoises, I asked Marci Henson.

"Oh, we think a lot of those ten thousand were pet tortoises, we believe as few as 2 percent may have actually been wild."

How can they tell -- the turtles came in wearing little knitted sweaters and booties? They keep trying to sit up and shake hands?

Besides, Ms. Henson said, quite seriously, "Unlimited breeding of an endangered species in captivity is something the community has to look into."

"To stop it?" I asked.

"Yes," said Marci Henson.

Vin Suprynowicz is assistant editorial page editor of the Review-Journal and author of the books "The Ballad of Carl Drega" and "The Black Arrow." See and

Friday, July 24, 2009

Wolves vs. Humans: Which Do the Feds Value More?

For Immediate Release
Thursday, July 23, 2009
For further Information, contact:
Paul Gessing 505-264-6090 or Jim Scarantino 505-256-2523

(Albuquerque)— The federal government’s wolf reintroduction plan is the very definition of big government in some rural areas in New Mexico. While the Rio Grande Foundation has not taken a position one way or the other on whether wolves should be reintroduced, its Investigative Journalist Jim Scarantino, has uncovered what appears to be a rather shocking example of misplaced priorities.

In his new report, “Does the Federal Government Value Wolves More Than Humans? The Money Says It All,” Scarantino takes a closer look at the wolf reintroduction program. Since the Mexican wolf reintroduction program was launched more than a decade ago, millions of dollars have been spent by the United States, Arizona and New Mexico governments. The goal was to reestablish a target population of 100 wolves in the mountainous areas of southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona

• According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the New Mexico and Arizona game departments, by the end of 2009, these agencies estimate that their total expenditures will be approximately $20.5 million;

• According to the USFWS’ 2008 year-end survey, only 52 wolves were roaming the Arizona-New Mexico reintroduction area. This means that each living wolf cost taxpayers nearly $400,000;

• In response to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Congress passed the 9/11 Victim’s Compensation Act. This law set the intrinsic value of a human life at $250,000. Higher sums were paid to compensate families for the lost incomes of a love one killed in the attacks. But the value of a human life itself, without regard to that person’s ability to earn money, was set at $250,000.

“At $400,000 a wolf and rising,” Scarantino asks, “government is valuing the intrinsic value of each wolf more than its values the intrinsic value of human life. Residents in the affected areas have frequently complained that the government seems to care more about “El Lobo” than the human residents who must live with these powerful predators. With these figures, they can now point to government’s excessive and endless spending on wolves to prove their point.”

The full report is available here:

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Who's Afraid of...The big bad wolf?

By: Laura Paskus 07/15/2009

By all rights, he should have been executed; it was his fourth killing within a year.

But in June, federal officials gave a male wolf a rare reprieve.

In Catron County’s Canyon del Buey—outside the town of Aragon—Alpha Male 1114, a Mexican gray wolf, had killed and eaten a calf. His mate, Alpha Female 903, was likely involved as well.

Under the Mexican gray wolf reintroduction project’s current rules—which include a three-strikes-you’re-out rule for cattle-killing lobos—such a transgression is punishable by death.

“That particular animal and that particular pack has represented a really tough set of decisions because we recognize our responsibility to help ranchers if wolves are affecting their landscape,” Bud Fazio, Mexican gray wolf recovery coordinator at the US Fish and Wildlife Service, says. “Yet we also recognize our responsibility to restore wolves to the landscape and give them every chance possible to make it out there.”

In this particular case, Fazio says, managers allowed the wolf to remain in the wild where he could continue helping his mate raise their pups—“and therefore restore more wolves to the wild before any future decisions to remove him.”

Alpha Male 1114’s fate isn’t set in stone—if he kills any more livestock, he will be captured and moved to captivity or else shot and killed. And not all wolves are lucky enough to be left in the wild—even though the federal government has spent more than a decade trying to reintroduce lobos to the southwestern United States.

According to the most recent official tally, there are currently 52 documented wolves in the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area, a legally defined 4 million-acre area of national forest that straddles New Mexico and Arizona—and out of which wolves are not allowed to stray. A total of 10 packs have been documented: five in Arizona on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests and the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, and five on New Mexico’s Gila National Forest. Returning predators to the landscape off of which they’d been hunted, clubbed and poisoned was bound to be complicated. But to many, the current numbers illustrate the program’s failure.

Wolf reintroductions have occurred across the US, including in Idaho and Montana, as well as the Great Lakes region and the southeastern US. Those other programs are not without problems and complications. For example, the successful recovery in Idaho and Montana—which will lead to the animals being removed from protection under the endangered species list—has spurred plans by both states to allow hunting of the wolves. But the Mexican gray wolf reintroduction in the Southwest is the one most clearly struggling.

“The wolves will go extinct,” Michael Robinson, conservation advocate with the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, says. “If the program is continued exactly the way it is now, these wolves will go extinct.”

Thanks to trigger-happy hunters and aggressive government bounty programs, by the mid-19th century, wolves had completely disappeared from the Southwest.

With only seven known alive in the wild, biologists realized the animal would soon be extinct—a problem that not only affected the species itself, but the ecosystem it inhabited.

In 1976, the federal government listed the Mexican gray wolf for protection under the nation’s Endangered Species Act. The following year, biologists began capturing wolves in Mexico—they found five—and began establishing a captive breeding program.

The Fish and Wildlife Service convened a recovery team and, in 1982, released a long-term recovery plan. Studies were completed, 18,000 public comments analyzed, lawsuits filed—on behalf of both environmentalists who supported the animal’s recovery as well as the livestock industry, which still opposes it today—and the agency sponsored hundreds of hours of meetings, hearings and public meetings.

And on March 29, 1998, with documents in place and decisions signed, biologists released the first wolves from pens in the Apache National Forest in Arizona.

“Our job was to go out late in the afternoon—that is, when it was still light—and open up the gates,” Fish and Wildlife Service’s former wolf coordinator Dave Parsons says. Managers had learned from the Yellowstone Park wolf reintroduction program in Montana that gates needed to be installed at the back of the pen, Parsons says; the Yellowstone animals didn’t want to go through the same gates they associated with their caretakers.

“So we went and opened those gates and attached motion-sensor video cameras to trees nearby to try and capture on film the event,” he says. They then retreated to their tents, waiting for dawn to break to see what the wolves had done.

In its 1982 recovery plan, the Fish and Wildlife Service had called for establishing a minimum population of 100 animals within their historic range; that number was the threshold by which to measure the effort’s success. In a separate document, it anticipated the wolf population would reach that number in 2006.

The program went “pretty well” until 2003, Parsons, who now works for the nonprofit Rewilding Institute, says. “The wild populations tracked our predictions almost—remarkably precisely—up to the end of 2003, where we predicted there would be 55 wolves, and the annual count was 55 wolves,” he says.

But then in 2003, the population started to decline. By the end of 2008, there were only 52 wolves estimated in the wild. “There’s been no real progress toward meeting the reintroduction objective of at least 100 wolves for the past five-plus years,” he says. “That’s pretty frustrating.”

So what exactly occurred in 2003?

That was the year the Fish and Wildlife Service signed an agreement establishing a new model for making management decisions, administered by the Adaptive Management Oversight Committee. In addition to the Fish and Wildlife Service, the committee consists of state, local and tribal partners. AMOC has been roundly criticized by activists—many of whom refer to it by its acronym, pronouncing it “amok,” rather than the preferred “A-mock.”

“Under AMOC, [the Fish and Wildlife Service] has managed to give away their statutory responsibility to recover endangered species to a consortium of agencies,” advocate Michael Robinson, who has been tracking the wolf program since the 1990s, says. One of AMOC’s management practices, Standard Operating Procedure 13, declares that any wolf known or suspected to have killed livestock on three occasions during a one-year period will be removed.

These “removals” can be lethal or non-lethal means of taking individual wolves out of the wild—and they are currently the leading cause of wolf removals from the wild. In fact, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s coordinator Fazio, agency personnel have removed a total of 70 wolves from the wild.

For comparison’s sake, 30 have been illegally shot (including five last year), 12 have been struck by vehicles, 10 have died from natural causes and nine from unknown causes.

In other words, of the various ways they might leave the wild, more wolves are being removed—or killed—by the very people charged with reintroducing the animals to the wild.

From his home in Pinos Altos—just north of Silver City, the tiny town is nestled at the edge of the Gila National Forest and sits about a half-mile from the wolf recovery area—Robinson has spent more than a decade advocating for the recovery of Mexican gray wolves in New Mexico.

“Most of the wolves that they release or that are born in the wild—about three-quarters of them at this point were born in the wild—most of them will end up dead or in captivity at human hands,” Robinson says. “Very few of them will live any length of time in the wild.”

The government has turned what was supposed to be a recovery program into a control program, he says. “That’s what we have here: an attempt by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the other agencies they work with to suppress the wolf population, confine the wolf population and ultimately to destroy it.”

One of Robinson’s biggest concerns about wolf recovery right now has to do with cattle carcasses left on public lands by the ranchers who graze their livestock on the national forests.

“If you go up to Beaverhead now, I could take you to two dead cows that are out there that were not killed by wolves—and those are just the two that are visible from the road,” Robinson says, referring to a portion of the recovery area at the north end of a road dividing the Gila and Aldo Leopold Wilderness. “There’s God knows how many tens of thousands of cows there, and most of them are on very, very rough dirt roads that take a long time to get to and they’re clustered around little hidden stock tanks. Who knows how many dead cows are out there now?”

In other areas where wolf recovery efforts are underway, ranchers must clean up their dead livestock carcasses; if they don’t, Robinson says, managers are not required to control wolves from livestock attacks in the vicinity of those attractants. Within the Mexican gray wolf recovery area, managers recommend that ranchers bury carcasses or else render carcasses inedible—using such methods as lime or explosives. But even the Forest Service, which controls the permits ranchers must obtain to graze livestock on public lands, cannot force ranchers to clean up their dead cows, even if they might attract predators, such as wolves.

“It’s perfectly legal to leave a dead cow right by cattle that are so sickly that in some cases they can’t even get up,” Robinson says. He believes there is evidence such scavenging changes a wolf’s eating habits.

Darting back and forth between his office and living room, Robinson shuffles through piles of paperwork—the result of filing Freedom of Information Act requests to get a hold of internal agency correspondence and other documents. Using stakeholder meeting notes and correspondence, he traces the story of wolves in the Campbell Blue Pack who met untimely deaths.

In 1998, the alpha pair and their pup were in Arizona; ignoring a corral full of cows and calves, they moved on to successfully hunt elk.

Later, the male and his new mate left the recovery area and were captured for relocation.

Trying to climb out of a chain-link fence, the female broke her leg in captivity; she was given veterinary care and rereleased in New Mexico. After their release from captivity, the pair split, Robinson says.

Then, in February 2001, the male was spotted in Cottonwood Canyon, feeding on the carcass of a dead bull. According to two agency email messages from that time period, an investigation revealed the bull had not been killed by the wolf; rather, it had likely slipped and fallen on a steep, icy mountainside—“and broken a leg, probably lying there for up to a week before dying.” The bull was in an area that had been closed to grazing since the previous November.

Wildlife Services and Fish and Wildlife Service staff offered to pack out the dead animal, which, according to the email, was “an extremely arduous task…” Staff believed removing the carcass would encourage the wolf to move along out of the area. The rancher refused to allow removal of the carcass—unless the carcass was purchased.

Around the same time, the female wolf was spotted by a rancher near Winston who also had a dead milk cow up the canyon from her house.

Eventually, Robinson says, the two wolves reunited. They began ignoring elk and hunting cattle exclusively. Wary by this point of traps, both were captured by aerial net gun. The male was placed in captivity (and euthanized this spring, as his health had deteriorated). The female was eventually rereleased into the Gila Wilderness; from there, she traveled approximately 40 miles back to the Winston rancher’s grazing allotment on the national forest and began hunting cattle.

As a result, on May 27, 2003, a Fish and Wildlife Service staffer shot and killed F 592, the first of 11 wolves thus far shot dead by the government since the reintroduction program began.

Robinson admits such documentation does not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that scavenging changes a wolf’s eating habits. “But it seems to indicate that these wolves changed their behavior due to their scavenging on livestock carcasses,” he says. “And there are other examples of this—this happens over and over again.”

The New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association has always opposed wolf reintroduction, according to Caren Cowan, its executive director.

“But since the wolves are here, we have tried to work with all the agencies to minimize the impacts, as best we can, on our members,” she says. “With that said, the impacts have been devastating to many members, with loss of livestock, loss of pets, loss of horses, the ability not to even be able to use their yards or private property for fear of having wolves in their yards.”

Families and rural economies are being harmed, she says. “We estimate there have been 1,500 head, minimum, that have been lost,” she says. “But because of the confirmation measures that are required by the government, it’s difficult [to say]—but their numbers don’t match our numbers.”

Currently, the nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife will compensate ranchers whose livestock have been killed by wolves—but Cowan points out that they don’t have an unlimited budget. “We believe if the government is going to turn predators out, then the government should be responsible for all losses.”

Finding a solution for all parties is difficult, Cowan says. “People are not being able to manage their own destiny,” she says, pointing out that ranchers aren’t allowed to shoot wolves the way they can coyotes, mountain lions or bears.

“This is like turning a sexual predator loose in your neighborhood and telling you that you can’t do anything about it,” she says.

With a warm, soothing voice, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s new wolf coordinator, Bud Fazio, seems accustomed to calming tensions. Despite leading a program that has become increasingly wieldy, he doesn’t seem battle-weary.

Of course, he’s only been here since May—he worked the past eight years as coordinator of the red wolf recovery project in the southeastern United States—and has yet to spend much time in the field.

He’s aware of the program’s problems and the many criticisms leveled against it.

“I think one of the biggest challenges is helping people to understand that wolves and people can in fact live together on the landscape,” he says. “With that comes the challenge that we have to take care of people on the landscape, as much as we do wolves—and we are always striving toward working with our partners to do that.”

Currently, the service is trying to establish an interdiction program that would offer ranches incentives to manage cattle differently—specifically, to manage cattle in a way that would allow wolves to exist in the wild. The program might also compensate ranchers for cattle lost to wolves.

The agency also is at work on two documents: a conservation assessment evaluating what has—and has not—worked within the program and an environmental assessment, which is exploring whether the wolf release area might be expanded from a small portion of the recovery area in eastern Arizona to a larger area that includes New Mexico.

The agency also hopes to redefine the term “breeding pair”—a term crucial to how the reintroduction plan is evaluated. The program’s original goal was to have at least 100 individual wolves and 18 breeding pairs. Breeding pairs—different from mated pairs—are currently defined as an alpha male and alpha female who have successfully bred and reared pups through the end of the calendar year.

In 2008—10 years after reintroduction efforts began—there were only two documented breeding pairs. Currently, Fazio believes there are between three and eight packs with pups living in the wild.

Each month, the program team posts monthly progress reports online. Reading these reports, it’s easy to see how intensively these animals are managed—even micro-managed.

In early February, for example, project personnel darted and captured a female wolf approximately 30 miles outside of the recovery zone after being moved into New Mexico in January. She was inspected at a vet clinic in Pinetop, Ariz., then placed within a chain-link-fence pen within the Fox Mountain pack territory “in an attempt to allow the pack to locate it.”

After several days, personnel decided that, “due to [her] uncertain breeding status” a different female wolf from captivity should replace her in the pen—to maximize the mating potential of an alpha male. She was removed from the pen and placed in the Sevilleta Wolf Management Facility near Socorro. The female wolf who replaced her was found dead within eight days. Her death remains under investigation.

It’s not an unusual story.

Even the project’s poster child—Brunhilda, the alpha female of the first wolf pack introduced in the Southwest, whose image graced agency posters and public relations material—met an unfortunate end. In July 2005, biologists captured her, planning to remove her radio collar and vaccinate her four pups. But the wolf overheated during her checkup and died. That was a mistake, obviously—and one team biologists took to heart.

Those biologists, however, aren’t the ones making the big decisions that affect the wolves. That responsibility is left to members of AMOC.

Given that the mandates of some of those member agencies are related to livestock production and animal control rather than endangered species protection, it is fair to say some committee members look less favorably upon the plight of wolves than others.

For its part, the stance of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish has evolved in recent years, in large part because of Gov. Bill Richardson’s stated support for the wolf program.

That evolution—and the agencies’ collaboration on the program—can be considered something of a success, according to Matt Wunder, chief of the department’s Conservation Service’s Division.

“In terms of the population, clearly, I think everybody would say that as far as the numbers go, we would have liked to see the numbers higher than they are at this point,” he says. “Because those numbers have fluctuated in the 40 to 60 range for a number of years now, I think that everybody feels that…we certainly could be farther along than we are this point.”

Most of the division’s time, he says, is spent trying to minimize conflicts between livestock and wolves.

“We recognize that there are impacts, that there are very polarized constituencies out there that are either very pro-wolf or, in some cases, very anti-wolf,” he says. “This is definitely not an easy program, but the department is definitely committed to it.”

This spring, in fact, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish was the only member of AMOC that recommended against removing from the wild or killing Alpha Male 1114, the wolf who had killed four head of cattle within a one-year period.

According to the agency’s recommendation, the rancher in question had rejected efforts to apply “proactive” measures on public lands; additionally, the male’s survival in the wild was linked to that of the pups as well.

The state of wolf recovery is so shaky that removal of this one animal could be detrimental not only to the survival of the San Mateo pack, but to the entire population’s success. As such, his life was spared—for now.

Yet even in the wild—and blessed by the best intentions of program managers—things haven’t gone smoothly for AM 1114, his mate, nor the six pups born to them in April.

Two pups were found dead, Fazio says. The adults abandoned the den, bringing one pup with them. When the female returned to retrieve the remaining pups, she found they had backed themselves into a crevice. Unable to coax them out, she eventually left them behind.

“We did our best to first try to bring the pups out of the crevice, and then we tried to reunite them with their parents,” he says. “When that didn’t work with the first pup, we made the call that it was more important that the remaining pups survive.”

“The reason we put all that effort in is they have the kind of genetics we want out there on the landscape,” Fazio says, explaining that to create a viable population, its genetic makeup must be diverse.

Yet, the yips of these pups—like the howls of so many others who were meant to again roam southwestern forests—will be heard only from within captivity...SantaFeReporter

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Range War In the West

There is a range war out West. And unless you live in Idaho or Nevada or any other Western state you probably have no idea what is happening or why should you care. But wherever you live in America you should care because sooner or later it will affect you.

This range war isn't about water rights or ranchers against homesteaders or big ranchers versus small ranchers like the Johnson County War in Wyoming in 1892. It is between ranchers who have worked the land raising cattle and sheep for over a century and environmental outlaws whose stated goal is driving them off the very land they need to survive and prosper. And this time the weapon of choice is not a Colt .45 or a Winchester rifle, but something much more deadly and destructive -- the lawsuit.

So what's the issue?

There are more than a quarter of a billion acres of public lands in the West. For over century a system has been in place to allow cattle and sheep ranchers access to portions of this land so that their animals can graze during certain times of year. Chances are that steak you throw on the BBQ spent some of its life on the range before being sold and sent to feedlots across the country to be fattened up to make sure that steak has some nice marbling.

Over the years there have been bitter disputes between ranchers and environmentalists over whether this practice should continue. For the ranchers this was not a philosophical discussion about the best use of the land or saving an endangered species. It was about their very survival and the survival of the cattle and sheep industries that contribute so much to the economies of many Western states. And this was not about keeping a few cowboys or sheepherders employed because there is an employment multiplier effect -- 1 ranch job creates 7 jobs to support the industry.

Recently, reasonable mainstream environmental and conservation groups like the Nature Conservancy have worked closely with the ranchers to find common ground that can address both the needs of this beautiful land while preserving a way of life that is an essential part of the West's past, present and future. Working together, the ranchers and the conservationists listened to each other and came up with plans to ensure the survival of both.

But some environmentalist outlaws like the Western Watersheds Project had no interest in compromise and since have used and abused the legal system of this country to deny the ranchers their rights and seeks to have the U.S. Government abrogate the legal contracts that allows them to use public lands for grazing.

This band of outlaws is led by a transplanted Easterner, Jon Marvel who some 30 years ago moved to Hailey, Idaho which is near the millionaire's playground of Sun Valley. He was an architect who designed huge homes for the rich and famous. He has designed over 200 homes near Hailey which has contributed to the sprawl now happening in that town. He says never designed a house over 7,000 square feet. Now that's one hell of a carbon footprint for a devoted environmentalist seeking to "protect" the range from the evil of cowboys and cattle!

He and his group have been known to be verbally and physically abusive to government officials who are only trying to do their job. In short they are not just environmental outlaws who operate outside the mainstream of environmental groups they are also bullies who use the tactics of intimidation not conciliation.

Well they must want something? Not really except to drive the ranchers out of business and let the land return to its pristine state when there were no cattle. I have news for Mr. Marvel, before the cattle even came to the West, huge herds of elk and buffalo roamed the plains and valleys for centuries and I'll bet they ate a little grass and tramped through streams.

Their tactic is to sue the federal government by challenging the rancher's permits on technicalities and also burying officials in a flood of FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests. It is estimated that just to fill the current requests it would take one person 6 years working full time. This means that trained range managers and scientists who should be working with the ranchers and other users of public lands are instead filling out paperwork. If you are a taxpayer you should be outraged.

I said earlier that even if you didn't live in the West this would affect you in some way. Eventually the price of beef would rise as there would be fewer cattle merging into the food supply.

But it might also put a severe crimp in the Obama administration's desire to upgrade the electricity grid, build new pipelines to carry the West's abundant natural gas to the rest of the nation and also take advantage of the wind corridors that dot the region by building wind farms and the arid deserts for solar farms.

It's already happening. Interior Secretary Salazar recently came to California to talk up building solar farms on public land near the Mojave Desert. But California Senator Dianne Feinstein is dead set against it as are radical environmentalists. They've been complaining about lack of renewable energy for years and now that it might happen they suddenly develop a bad case of NIMBYism.


Because these hypocrites don't want any of that on public land either and you cannot achieve the president's energy goals unless you use the vast public lands of the West. It is just not possible.

Finally you should care because this type of bullying and intimidation is just plain wrong. And it's hard to deal with folks who's only stated goal is to drive you out of business and destroy a way of life that has survived for over a hundred years against all the hardships that either man or Mother Nature can inflict.

So the next time you fire up the BBQ to grill your steak or hamburger just remember where it came from and the hard work that went into putting it on your plate. But also remember that if some folks get their way, next year it might cost a lot more.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Ranchers: Politics have become part of industry

There once were just cowboys, cattle and wide open space, rambling across an eastern Oregon landscape too hot for most humans, too dry to grow much other than sagebrush.

Now, Oregon steaks are served in South Korea and ranchers fret over cattle damage to streams.

To hear rancher Ken Holliday tell it, the romance of ranching has long been gone. But the constant roller coaster ride that sapped the thrill is on a downhill run with the recession, leaving ranchers feeling beaten.

"It's never been easy to make a living," says Holliday, who runs a 10,000-acre ranch near John Day. "But now, you kind of wonder why you even do it."

In Oregon's vast cattle country, where life yields to nature's whims and business bucks with the market's whiplash, the global downturn is bearing down. At the start of a food chain that ends on your plate, Oregon ranchers are trying to hang on through a sudden swing that could mean a losing year for an industry that roped $664 million in gross sales last year.

In 2008, ranchers paid record high prices for corn, hay and feed an investment now all but lost as beef competes against falling prices for poultry and pork. People worldwide are buying less meat. Restaurants are ordering fewer steaks. And the hides that make shoes, car seats and furniture aren't worth much in a recession that has curbed consumer lust for material things.

Summer is supposed to be beef's best-selling season. But for many ranchers, the recession heaps pressure on an Old World industry trying to find a place in a new age. Cyclical downturns are the norm in agriculture. But this one exacerbates a fundamental shift unfolding in the beef cattle industry, moving toward tightened regulations, choosier consumers and heightened environmental concerns.

"There are many issues affecting the industry today," says Brent Searle, an Oregon Department of Agriculture economist. "Some are environmental and social, some are microbial. ... There are clear agendas and influences now on how food is produced and distributed."

So far, Oregon ranchers have adapted while holding tight to traditions. The big hats, big belts and big boots have remained unchanged for generations. Business and life follow the law of the seasons. And the one thing a rancher knows is what goes down must come back up again if he can hang on long enough.

Hope never dies: At the Central Oregon Livestock Auction, auctioneer Trent Stewart stares from under a wide brim, noting a good omen on the way. Rain a sprinkling of gold for pastures across the high desert terrain.

"Well," he says. "What are we going to do with all this grass? The gentleman upstairs must be watching out for us."

Outside Madras on U.S. 97, the livestock auction is a fast-paced cattle-hawking operation in which 35,000 head are swapped annually, totaling up to $20 million in gross sales each year. Ranchers, cattle buyers, feedlot operators, truckers and others congregate weekly to carry out the business transactions for an industry that's among the largest in terms of its economic and environmental impact.

In Oregon and the nation, cattle are among the top agricultural moneymakers, as well as the biggest consumers of corn. Oregon has 605,000 beef cattle in 11,500 operations, mostly in the southern and eastern parts of the state. Raising cattle on pastures consumes about 60 percent of the state's 17 million acres of farmland, according to an Oregon State University Extension Service report.

The heart of the state's beef cattle industry lives in its far-flung reaches. In counties such as Baker and Grant, cattle and calves make up more than half of the gross agricultural sales, and family ranches are a bedrock for rural economies.

In Malheur County, Jordan Valley would be a retirement community of 300 if not for the longtime ranchers and their families, says Jayne Collins, owner of the remaining grocery store, Ranch Hand Hardware.

"This town won't go away, because there's ranching here," says Collins, 59.

But in recent years, ranchers have been under the gun of changing social values that could alter their way of life. Many say they'll survive the recession but perhaps not the broader shifts in the industry.

Like logging, ranching has grown controversial and political. Environmental groups worry that cattle herds trample stream banks, causing erosion to salmon habitat. Debates wage over whether cattle should be allowed to graze on public lands, which make up a large portion of the state's pastureland.

"Obviously, grazing has been a primary use of public lands for the last century," says Brent Fenty, executive director of the Oregon Natural Desert Association, which filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service over the impact of cattle on public lands along the John Day River. "Now there are competing values for wildlife and recreation. With that, there are social and economic conflicts."

At the same time, consumers demand more natural beef raised on grass, without hormones or antibiotics. That requires more grazing land. And ranchers must adjust to a globalized marketplace, where currency rates matter and consumers overseas can bolster razor-thin profit margins.

Many nearing retirement in an aging industry wonder what the future will look like. The high costs of land mean few people can afford to jump in. Their kids are leaving the rugged life for steadier wages.

Holliday, 53, runs 2,200 cattle at his ranch on the banks of the John Day River, founded by his father more than 50 years ago. He is hunkered down in the fight against environmental groups, but he considers other options. If he sold his land, he says, he could cash in big.

"On paper I'm a multimillionaire," Holliday says. "But we're barely holding our teeth together."

Over a lifetime, a typical cow may eat thousands of pounds of corn, hay and feed before it ends up at the slaughterhouse. And last year, the cost of those ingredients went sky-high.

Feed shot up 22 percent, fertilizer and chemicals went up 26 percent and fuel rose 14 percent, according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service. Corn, the primary diet of cattle in the last months of their lives, has tripled in price over recent years.

The high input costs are a big reason economists predict a money-losing year for the industry nationwide, with losses of up to $130 a head, which ripples throughout the chain, according to CattleFax, a market research firm. With 26 million head of cattle in the U.S., the losses multiply fast.

Even in a normal year, consumers might have hesitated to pay for beef at last year's production prices. But with the recession, world demand for beef has dropped, tamping a decade of growth fueled by rising incomes from here to India.

In the U.S., people are simply eating out less. At supermarkets, they buy fewer luxury items such as T-bone and New York steaks (about $6.20 a pound) and more of the less expensive and less profitable hamburger ($2.25 a pound). Still, poultry and pork continue to be an even cheaper alternative (from $1.85 to $2.95 a pound).

"People with less income eat out less," says Gregg Doud, an economist for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, which represents 30,000 ranchers nationwide. "That's clearly impacted our business mostly in the white table cloth restaurants and steakhouses. And steak is the highest value item."

To get consumers buying, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association kicked off grilling season early. The group released 60 million price discount coupons this year, compared with 10 million last year.

But the nonedible parts of a cow have tanked, too. This year, the collapse of the auto industry and low demand for leather consumer goods could mean additional losses.

"It's very hard for everyone to make money on this deal," says Dean Jennings, executive director of the Oregon Beef Council. "There are four cuts of chicken and dozens of dozens of cuts of beef, each with corresponding prices."

The banking crisis means that the costs of some loans have also gone up, which will further pinch profit margins in coming months. Jay Penick, CEO of Northwest Farm Credit Services based in Spokane, says the beef cattle industry is just at the beginning of this cyclical downturn.

"This downturn is more severe and occurred quicker," Penick says. "The cycles have been much more extreme, the highs are higher, and the lows are lower. All of our industries in agriculture will have to adjust to the new economic realities that we face."

Ranchers have started paring their herds and cutting back production to balance supply and demand. Beef production is down 3.5 percent nationwide, and average prices hover at about $3.92 a pound, by the latest USDA estimates.

The roller coaster is a part of life in agriculture. But some Oregon ranchers have found ways to even out the dips and dives.

Rancher Louie Molt sells hay, runs an organic farm and a land-leveling company on his 300-acre ranch in Burns. Several years ago, he opened his own restaurant, the Meat Hook Steak House, to sell the meat he raises to reap a bigger profit.

"We've cut out the middleman anywhere we can," Molt says. "We're trying to make money any way we can."

Other ranchers are specializing in raising all-natural beef, a growing market that Oregon leads. Country Natural Beef, a well-known cooperative of 120 ranches that started in Oregon, rode the all-natural movement early on, hoping to sidestep the commodity market and its losses.

The co-op also adopted a different business model by calculating a cost of production and selling directly to retailers such as Whole Foods and New Seasons with a 3 percent rate of return.

"Ranchers and farmers have always been price takers," says Scott Exo, executive director of the Food Alliance, a nonprofit that certifies sustainable farms, ranches and food handlers "Sometimes they cover their costs, other times they don't. Country Natural Beef tried to change that."

But even Country Natural Beef isn't safe from the economy's erratic jolts. The natural-meat market faces fierce competition from big national producers who have jumped on the bandwagon. And consumers, more careful with their dollars, are trading down for cheaper meats at the butcher counter.

Sales of natural and organic beef products, which can cost as much as 50 percent more than commodity beef, have declined by about 5 percent from last year, according to data from the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. And Country Natural Beef ranchers are searching for ways to differentiate themselves from the rest of the pack, hoping consumers will continue paying the premium price. Like others, they'll be harvesting 5 percent fewer cattle.

In order to cover his costs, Dan Barnhart, a Country Natural Beef rancher near Philomath, says he's been selling off more cattle from his herd of 180. He's doing everything he can to get through a downturn with no clear end.

"I've sold them to make it, but that's not sustainable," Barnhart says. "I have to cut costs. I need to find a better way to winter the cows. I don't have all the answers."