Federal wildlife officials and the National Fish and Wildlife Federation have signed an agreement establishing a trust fund to help ranchers deal with the impacts of endangered wolves that have been reintroduced in the Southwest.
The Mexican Wolf Interdiction Trust Fund, announced Tuesday, aims to alleviate some of the bitter feelings that have been brewing among ranchers and environmentalists since the endangered Mexican gray wolf returned to the region more than a decade ago.
Ranchers have long complained about wolves feeding on their cattle and threatening their livelihood, while environmentalists have criticized ranchers' grazing practices and the federal government's management of wolf recovery efforts.
"I am confident the interdiction program will not only advance wolf conservation by addressing the economic impacts of our Mexican wolf reintroduction efforts, it will also improve and conserve Arizona's and New Mexico's unique and important landscape and land use practices," Benjamin Tuggle, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Southwest region director, said in a written statement.
The Mexican wolf, a subspecies of the gray wolf, was exterminated in the wild by the 1930s. In 1998, the government began reintroducing wolves along the Arizona-New Mexico line, in a territory of more than 4 million acres interspersed with forests, private land and towns.
There are now about 50 wolves in the wild in Arizona and New Mexico, but that's half of what biologists had hoped to have by now.
The reintroduction program has been hampered by illegal shootings, rancher complaints and removal of wolves that have violated the program's three-strikes rule. Federal agents can kill, or trap and remove, any wolf that has been involved in three livestock kills within a year.
Under the interdiction program, trust fund money will compensate ranchers for livestock kills and finance grazing techniques that prevent depredation by wolves. The fund also can pay for range riders to keep the wolves from livestock.
Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association, said ranchers support the program because it offers several options.
"We think that anything like this is definitely worth the effort," she said. "We're willing to try most anything."
Officials haven't settled on a dollar amount for the trust fund, but Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Tom Buckley said the goal is to have it be self-sustaining.
Cowan estimated the fund would need at least a few million dollars.
"A lot of things all come down to the economic sustainability of the industry, and is the program going to provide that to us? At least there is a hope of that," she said.
Potential funding sources include private donors, livestock and environmental groups and government agencies. Officials said all interdiction activities will be paid for by donations and interest on the fund's principal.
While the program may help over the long term, Cowan said ranchers in southwestern New Mexico are in a desperate situation right now because of recent decisions by the wolf recovery team to leave wolves in the wild despite their having more than three kills.
Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity said there may be good intentions behind the trust fund, but he's concerned that the stakeholder council governing the fund will be more sympathetic to ranchers than wolf recovery.
Buckley said the agreement establishing the fund is clear that the money will not be used for any projects that would have a negative impact on the wolves. He said the council will be made up of a mix of stakeholders, including ranchers and conservationists.
The trust fund, Buckley said, is an attempt at finding middle ground.
"We are trying not to take sides in either direction," he said. "We want to go down the middle, and we encourage all the parties on either side to get together to accomplish what's in their own best interest. We think this program will go a long way to doing that."
Robinson said officials should think carefully before "throwing money at the problem." He argued that a better way to use the trust fund would be to compensate ranchers willing to forego their grazing privileges on public land, but many ranchers have been critical of such a suggestion.