Wednesday, August 18, 2010

New Mexico ranchers' use of technology to track wolves debated

Should ranchers have access to the technology that allows humans to track endangered Mexican gray wolves?

One advocacy group says no, given that the number of Mexican wolves living in the wild in the Southwest has dropped from 42 to 39 in recent weeks.

Radio-telemetry receivers used by ranchers to track Mexican wolves in New Mexico and Arizona should be returned to federal wildlife authorities, according to the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, which is worried about illegal killings of the vanishing predator.

"In addition, the government should assume the wolves' radio-collar frequencies have been compromised and should change the frequencies to prevent any tracking of the wolves via privately owned telemetry receivers," wrote Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity. Robinson's letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was the center's second effort in a little more than two years to have the equipment returned.

Ranchers, though, say they use the equipment to locate dead cattle, not to hunt wolves.

Finding the location of a collared wolf with the receiver is not an exact science, said Laura Schneberger, who has a ranch on the north edge of New Mexico's Gila National Forest, where Mexican wolves are trying to establish packs. Schneberger, president of the Gila Livestock Growers, said the receivers have been used on her ranch.

"If you are on a ranch with 42 square miles, you're going to need that monitor," Schneberger said. "It will get you in that general area, then you look for buzzards. You use it to make sure the wolves are out of the cows. They (wolves) know you're coming way before you get there and find what they've been eating."

Robinson, who works out of the center's Silver City office, said the receivers can be used to pinpoint the wolves.

"As you get closer the telemetry signals get stronger," he said. "The population is getting gunned down one by one, for the most part."

Reintroduction advocates say the dwindling population means each lost wolf shrinks the gene pool. About 300 Mexican wolves are in captivity, in addition to the 39 in the wild.

Research indicates inbreeding is causing smaller litters and lower survival rates for pups, Robinson said. That could signal the end for a creature that once roamed large areas of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Mexico.

The most pointed argument for retrieving the receivers, advocates say, is the fact that illegal shooting has been the main cause of death for the Mexican gray wolf since its reintroduction in 1998.

A total of 75 wolves have been released, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife data. Some of those wolves had pups that reached maturity. Thirty-five were shot illegally. Three have been killed since the beginning of June, said Tom Buckley, a Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman. Vehicles hitting wolves accounted for 12 deaths, which was the second-largest category.

Robinson said another 46 wolves, all but three with radio collars, have disappeared. Sometimes batteries die, but in 2009, two animals with collars dropped off the radar between weekly surveys, which suggests they were illegally killed, Robinson said.

Since 1998, only two people have been convicted of illegally shooting a Mexican wolf, Robinson said. Another who admitted to killing a Mexican wolf was not prosecuted.

"Given the high rate of illegal shooting of Mexican wolves, as well as the large number of wolves disappearing under suspicious circumstances, wolf-frequency-programmed receivers should only be in the hands of government employees responsible for protecting and recovering the wolves, and in the hands of scientists studying them," Robinson wrote.

Removing the receivers would take away a tool used by small family ranches that account for 95 percent of the grazing activity in the Gila, Schneberger said. "We've had people go out of business," she said. "Most of them have a very limited number of cattle."

A rancher can legally kill a wolf caught attacking livestock on private property, Buckley said. On public land, which includes the Gila National Forest grazing allotments, they must have a permit. It is not legal to shoot a wolf walking through or near cattle, he said.

Schneberger said no permits have been issued in Arizona or New Mexico, even in cases where ranchers had confirmed wolf kills.

To get a "shoot-on-sight" permit, there must be at least six breeding pairs in the area, Robinson said. That is a rarity, he said, which is why no permits have been issued.

The Fish and Wildlife Service provided the receivers at the beginning of the program "to elicit support" and give ranchers a method of depredation control, Buckley said.

About 11 receivers are in the hands of New Mexico ranchers and three are in Arizona, Buckley said. But the service cannot account for about four receivers loaned out early on, he said.

It may be one person who is misusing the equipment, Buckley said, "although I would acknowledge that even one loss (to poaching) is significant in this small population of wolves."

To get a receiver, ranchers now must fill out a "statement of use and receipt," which warns that dens and rendezvous sites, where wolves create a home base after pups outgrow the den, "are sensitive areas and caution should be used so the animals are not disrupted when it is not necessary to do so."

Buckley said the service is evaluating the policy of lending receivers as it works to revise the original recovery plan, which was written in 1982. A 2001 assessment prepared by the Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies stated that the revision was "long overdue." Robinson believes the service is wasting time instead of doing what is required by the Endangered Species Act to save the Mexican wolf.

"Even without conclusive, legally actionable evidence that telemetry receivers are being used for illicit ends, we urge you to adopt a wolf-protective stance," Robinson wrote. "This unique subspecies is in significant danger of extinction."

Chris Roberts may be reached at; 546-6136.

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