Thursday, October 28, 2010

Enviro group sues over NM, Ariz. wolf listing

An environmental group has sued Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, seeking to force him to rule on a petition to list the Mexican gray wolf in New Mexico and Arizona as an endangered species separate from other gray wolves in North America.

The wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians, Nicole Rosmarino, said the Mexican gray wolves face potential extinction in the wild.

WildEarth Guardians filed its lawsuit Wednesday in federal court in Phoenix, alleging Salazar's decision is overdue.

An Interior Department spokeswoman, Kendra Barkoff, said Thursday the agency cannot comment on pending litigation.

Another conservation group, the Center for Biological Diversity, filed a notice Wednesday of its intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in federal court in Washington, D.C., saying the agency failed to respond to petitions to list the wolf and three other species.

WildEarth Guardians, the Center for Biological Diversity and The Rewilding Institute filed petitions in August 2009 for a separate listing for the Mexican gray wolf.

The Fish and Wildlife Service agreed this August to review the status of the species.

Such a positive finding triggers a one-year status review—an in-depth look to decide if the species should be listed.

But WildEarth Guardians' lawsuit contends Salazar should have decided last November whether to review the wolves' status.

Rosmarino said he had 90 days from the date the petition was filed.

The lawsuit said Salazar should have decided by Aug. 12 whether the listing was warranted.

Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity said Fish and Wildlife "is placing the Mexican gray wolf and other endangered species at increased risk for extinction" by missing deadlines...

NM commission extends trapping ban in wolf area

The New Mexico Game Commission on Thursday approved changes in state rules to temporarily ban trapping throughout the Gila and Apache national forests in southwestern New Mexico. That will allow wildlife managers time to study the risks of trapping and snaring to the Mexican gray wolf.

The prohibition will begin Nov. 1 and last at least six months while the state Game and Fish Department assesses whether some methods of trapping would pose less risk for the wolves.

The changes follow an executive order issued last summer by Gov. Bill Richardson that called for a temporary ban on trapping on the New Mexico side of an area where Mexican gray wolves have been reintroduced along the New Mexico-Arizona border.

Richardson's executive order noted that traps do not differentiate between wolves and the animals for which traps were set.

His order said there have been six confirmed and three probable Mexican gray wolves trapped in New Mexico's portion of the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area in the past eight years. Five wolves were injured by the traps, two severely enough to require leg amputations.

Injuries can harm wolves' ability to catch prey and could increase the risk of wolves preying on livestock instead of faster elk and deer, the order said.

Environmentalists applauded the commission's decision to adopt the trapping ban, calling it a milestone for wolves in the Southwest.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Mexican gray wolf found dead in NM; 4th this year

By SUE MAJOR HOLMES / Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE - Another Mexican gray wolf has been found dead in southwestern New Mexico, dealing a further setback to a struggling program to reintroduce the endangered animals along the Arizona-New Mexico border.

The female wolf was found dead on Oct. 12 in Sierra County. It was the fourth wolf found dead since June.

A spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Albuquerque, Tom Buckley, said the wolf's body was sent to the agency's forensics laboratory in Ashland, Ore., to find out what killed the animal.

The male wolf that had been traveling with her has not been spotted, but Buckley said there's no reason to believe something happened to him.

He said there had been no mortality signal from the male wolf's radio collar. The signal is set off when an animal does not move for a set time.

The two animals, known as Morgart's Pack, were in the Gila National Forest in September, according to the program's monthly update.

Government agencies began reintroducing Mexican gray wolves into the wild in the two states in 1998. Biologists had predicted a self-sustaining wild population of 100 wolves before now, but a count early this year found 42 between the two states, down from 52 the year before.

The subspecies of the gray wolf had been exterminated in the wild by the 1930s.

Fish and Wildlife officials announced earlier this month they were postponing the release of eight wolves in Arizona's Apache National Forest until next year. The program originally expected to release the animals this fall, but managers decided it was not the right time for a successful release. The three other wolf deaths this year include two males from Hawks Nest Pack in eastern Arizona who were found shot to death this summer, and the alpha male of the San Mateo pack in New Mexico that was found dead in June from an undetermined cause.

In addition, the alpha male from the Paradise Pack in Arizona disappeared in April. Buckley said the program still doesn't know what happened. The federal agency, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, the Arizona Game and Fish Department's Operation Game Thief and private groups and individuals have offered a reward of up to $58,000 for information leading to the conviction of anyone responsible for shooting deaths of Mexican gray wolves.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Lawsuit Puts Federal Livestock Grazing in Doubt

By Myers Reece 10-21-10

Western agricultural groups say a June lawsuit filed by five environmental groups in U.S. District Court is threatening the livelihoods of more than 20,000 ranchers who use federal lands for livestock grazing.

But environmentalists counter that grazing is destructive to public lands and is burdensome to taxpayers. Their complaint seeks amendments to grazing fee regulations and requests that the National Environmental Policy Act be used in determining fees.

When announcing the lawsuit in June, Taylor McKinnon, public lands campaigns manager for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the “federal grazing program is as fiscally irresponsible as it is ecologically harmful.”

“In responding to our petition,” McKinnon said, “the government must now choose between correcting and continuing the subsidized destruction of America’s public land.”

The Montana Farm Bureau Federation announced in September that it’s one of 27 organizations, including 11 other Western farm bureaus, to intervene in the litigation. The agricultural groups are represented by the Mountain States Legal Foundation.

In an op-ed column, William Perry Pendley of the Mountain States Legal Foundation wrote that, while there have been numerous challenges to federal grazing regulations, the current lawsuit is “the biggest challenge yet” from environmental groups.

“For western ranchers and their families, the communities that depend upon them, and the wide-open landscapes that they savor and save daily, much hangs in the balance,” Pendley wrote.

Jake Cummins, executive vice president of Montana’s farm bureau, said last week if the environmental groups prevail in the lawsuit, the increase in grazing fees would be “untenable” for most ranchers. Cummins notes that 30 percent of land in Montana is federal, and in other Western states it’s twice that much.

“If you take (federal grazing) out of operation, that’s going to result in a lot of people not being able to maintain their ranching business,” Cummins said. “Ranching is a marginal business anyway, and with this you’re going to see a lot of these ranches converted to subdivisions.”

The lawsuit, filed in district court in Washington D.C., is the latest shakeup in a decades-long tussle over grazing on land managed by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.

The BLM manages more public land than any federal agency at 245 million acres. Of that, nearly 160 million acres have livestock grazing. The Forest Service manages just under 200 million acres, about half of which has grazing. Combined, the agencies administer more than 25,000 grazing permits.

Federal livestock grazing policy dates back to the 1934 Taylor Grazing Act, and then later the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 and the Public Rangelands Improvement Act of 1978. The 1978 act established a formula for determining fees on an annual basis.

Disagreements between environmentalists and ranchers over public grazing is nothing new, though the tension has been especially discernible over the last two decades dating back to the national environmental campaign “Cattle Free in ’93,” Cummins said. During that campaign, environmentalists demanded that the Clinton administration vacate all grazing permits and leases for federal lands.

While philosophies on public grazing shifted under the Clinton and Bush administrations, the fee structure remained the same. The Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition to increase grazing fees in 2005. The June complaint was filed to compel federal agencies to respond to the petition.

For 2010, the BLM and Forest Service set grazing fees at $1.35 per animal unit month (AUM). But the Center for Biological Diversity asserts that fees must be between $7.64 and $12.26 per AUM to recover costs.

Cummins said the fee system has withstood numerous challenges and was reinforced by a 1986 presidential executive order because it’s both “reasonable” and “equitable.”

“It’s a process that’s proven to be successful in the West and it’s frustrating for those of us who work in the agricultural industry to deal with this never-ending attempt to demonize ranchers and drive them off land,” Cummins said.

“Maybe if you see a cow, it offends your sensibilities,” he added. “But personally, I like steak.”

Environmentalists say livestock grazing destroys habitat and imperils wildlife, while the public foots the bill through subsidies. McKinnon said last week the complaint aims to raise fees so that full costs are recovered and not passed on to taxpayers.

“That’s why these groups have intervened, because this threatens a massive public subsidy,” McKinnon said. “There’s a whole host of costs shouldered by the public for the livestock industry using public lands.”

But Cummins said the only federal land he knows of in the Montana vicinity to be damaged by overgrazing is Yellowstone National Park, and the culprits are bison.

“Why are bison better than cattle?” he said. “That’s something that escapes me. Why is that better than having managed grazing? I challenge you to drive around the state and show me where there’s been real harm done.”

He added: “These people filing the lawsuits aren’t from Montana; they’re filing them from offices somewhere else.”

None of the five environmental groups have headquarters in Montana. The Center for Biological Diversity is based out of Tucson, Ariz., but has “250,000 members and online activists” with offices across the country.

Occasional property disputes arise when livestock are allowed to roam on federal lands. Gordon Brimhall, who owns 24 acres in the Trego area, said his neighbors have federal grazing permits and their cattle spend substantial time on his property.

Brimhall said he’s been told he should build a fence, but he said it’s not his responsibility to fork out money for a fence, adding that he’s disabled. He said he’s spoken to the cattle owners and the proper authorities but nothing’s been done.

“The other neighbors are angry too, but they’ve given up,” Brimhall said. “I’m to my wit’s end.”

Cummins said property disputes are inevitable but added that the federal agencies and lease holders work hard to prevent such problems.

“To suggest that there’s never a dispute between people who have adjoining properties – it happens but it’s generally resolved,” Cummins said.

The permits, Cummins said, “aren’t just issued willy nilly,” and the qualifying ranchers make necessary improvements to the land, including water and fences. Public lands maintained for grazing, Cummins added, often benefit wildlife as well.

Lillian Ostendorf, a rancher in southeastern Montana, said many BLM lands were initially bypassed by homesteaders because of their poor habitat. She said the only reason the BLM land that her family runs cattle on today is suitable for use – including by wildlife – is because they provide water and take care of it.

“We maintain the fences, pay for watering improvements,” Ostendorf said. “We foot the bill for that and those costs have gone up too. It’s just a poor time to be adding costs to farmers’ and ranchers’ bottom lines.”

Ostendorf said, if grazing fees are increased, the effect will be even more damaging to some of her neighbors who have far more BLM-leased land.

“It could be devastating to their operations,” she said. “This is an important issue.”

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Guy Idaho Ranchers Love to Hate

Jon Marvel sees two ways to get cows and sheep to stop grazing on public lands: Politics and litigation. He chooses the latter.

By Dennis Higman, 10-14-10

“If we weren’t getting to them, they’d brush us off like a fly. After all, we’re just a little organization with 14 or 15 people, but they act like what we do is the end of the world.” Photo courtesy of Boise State.
“If we weren’t getting to them, they’d brush us off like a fly. After all, we’re just a little organization with 14 or 15 people, but they act like what we do is the end of the world.” Photo courtesy of Boise State.

There are two topics you don’t want to bring up with most Idaho ranchers: wolves and Jon Marvel, the white-haired, 63-year-old founder and executive director of the Western Watersheds Project.

Exactly what is it about this guy who looks more like a college professor than an environmental activist worthy of nstant, visceral, angry reactions from ranchers, that include “he’s an asshole” to “I hate that bastard” to “he’s an abusive guy” and other not-suitable-for-work quotations?

As it turns out, Marvel, a history graduate from the University of Chicago who founded WWP in 1993, is not at all mild-mannered unless it serves his purpose. In reality, he’s is an intense, combative man who does not believe in compromise. “You don’t influence change without directly taking on the people who oppose that change,” he says in a recent interview. “Collaboration simply gets you marginalized.”

He’s also a man who harbors a long-standing grudge with roots in an incident many, many years ago at his family cabin in Stanley, Idaho. “One day I found this rancher cutting across my land without permission, taking salt blocks to his stock. I told him to go around, go back the same way he came in and you know what he said? ‘Where did you come from?’ It was like he felt he was somehow entitled to use my private property as he saw fit.”

That initial contact led Marvel to take a closer look at what his ranching neighbors thought they were entitled to do on surrounding public land where they grazed their stock in the summer under longterm, subsidized leases (currently, it’s $1.35 for a cow or calf compared to $17 to $22 on private land). He was appalled by the activity supervised by the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the state. He saw it as the long-standing, irresponsible, wanton destruction of the land and its resources---fish, wildlife, plants and water---by cattle and sheep. He surmised this destruction was aided and abetted by complacent, complicit government agencies charged with regulation and oversight of grazing on millions of acres in the public interest.

That was a defining moment for him and the beginning of what became Western Watersheds Project---which is the second reason most Idaho ranchers hate Jon Marvel. Although the mission of WWP, headquartered in Hailey, is to “protect and restore western watersheds and wildlife through education, public policy initiatives and litigation,” its goal is to do this by getting domestic livestock off public land in the West. And while its methods certainly include some education and policy initiatives, the organization’s MO consists primarily of filing lawsuit after lawsuit, using every environmental law on the books, ranging from the Endangered Species Act to the Clean Water Act and the Federal Land Policy Management Act, among many others.

Jon Marvel, WWP staff and officials with the Forest Serveice survey cattle damage on Pine Creek in the Little Lost River Watershed. Photo by John Carter.

Jon Marvel, WWP staff and officials with the Forest Serveice survey cattle damage on Pine Creek in the Little Lost River Watershed. Photo by John Carter.

“Marvel’s nothing but a pot-smoking trust-funder who came out here from back East to change the world. He’s got millions of dollars behind him,” complains one angry Idaho rancher who wouldn’t allow his name to be printed. “If I say anything on the record, I’m just inviting one of his damn lawsuits and I can’t afford it, he said, continuing, “He’s not interested in improving the resource; he just wants people like me out of business. It’s hard enough to make any money in cattle these days.”

That kind of reaction does not displease Jon Marvel. Public lands in the West and livestock are not a viable combination and never have been, he says. It doesn’t make any sense economically or environmentally to use this arid land for grazing and he says he can prove it with reams of data and statistics: It’s too dry, harsh and fragile, only 3 percent of cattle are raised on public land anyway (most are raised on private land in East Texas and Florida), and ranching is, at best, a marginal economic activity in Idaho.

Half the ranchers who use public land for grazing are “hobbyists,” in Marvel’s view, who don’t depend on ranch income. Of the other half who do, half of those are “corporate ranchers,” he says.

“They know I’m right about this,” Marvel says. “If we weren’t getting to them, they’d brush us off like a fly. After all, we’re just a little organization with 14 or 15 people, but they act like what we do is the end of the world.”

Here, Marvel is being somewhat disingenuous. Western Watersheds has offices in nine Western states, a million-dollar budget and a formidable advisory board and staff of doctors (the academic type---botanists, biologists, ecologists), as well as an aggressive, highly effective team of public interest lawyers in Boise, Advocates for the West.

Typical is John Carter, a long-time board member and the director of WWP’s Utah Office until he recently resigned to spend more time developing his 900-acre wildlife and research preserve in southeast Idaho. Carter, a soft-spoken Southern farm boy with a degree in mechanical engineering, a Master’s in business administration and a Ph.D. in biology/ecology, started several successful engineering businesses and consulting firms involved in studies of watersheds, oil shale development and hazardous waste management before devoting his full time to authoring numerous scientific papers on range conditions in the West and becoming an expert witness for Western Watersheds.

“You know, people like to zero-in on Jon Marvel,” says Carter, whose accent and courtly manner mask a passionate, aggressive dedication to the cause, “but he’s not alone. There are a lot of highly qualified people all over the West, pushing for and dedicated to reform just like he is.

“What we’re up against is a broken, corrupt regulatory system,” Carter continues. “The environmental damage caused by livestock grazing on Western public land is irrefutable. This land needs more than a few years off. The fact is, it needs a century of rest!”

Idaho ranchers who graze livestock on public land during the summer most emphatically do not agree with any of this. “Jon Marvel’s an environmental obstructionist,” insists Carl Elsworth, Idaho Cattle Association (ICA) President. “His goal is not to help the environment or help local economies. He holds up good projects like improvement of salmon and bull trout habitat on technicalities because all he really wants to do is get cattle off public land.”

Charles Lyon, incoming ICA President, agrees. “There is no middle ground here, not as far I’m concerned. Marvel’s trying to nail us to a wall with all his lawsuits. He wants to put us out of business and we have to stand together.”

“These people (WWP) have never worked the ground a day in their life,” he says, “and if they get their way, a lot of struggling little rural communities are going to be hurt economically. There’s a good system in place, using public range in the summer and private land in the winter. You take away the public land, it will overload private land, damage its resources and a lot of small operators will get squeezed out.”

The Idaho Rangeland Resource Commission (IRRC), a state agency dedicated to providing “scientifically-based educational materials to Idaho teachers” and whose goals are, among others, “to promote public support for sustainable livestock grazing” and “responsible range stewardship,” declined to comment on Marvel and WWP, or suggest people who would.

“The IRRC works on positive stories and stays away from controversy as much as possible,” Executive Director Gretchen Hyde said in an e-mail, “and we don’t want to put anyone at risk of dealing with lawsuits (frivolous or not).”

The Forest Service, one of the primary regulatory agencies that oversee livestock grazing on public lands in Idaho and other Western States---and a constant target of Jon Marvel’s lawsuits and ire---is also gun shy. A local Idaho district ranger in that vast bureaucratic organization now needs permission from Washington, D.C., to talk to the press, and that permission was not forthcoming in time for this article.

It does pay to be wary of Marvel and the Western Watersheds Project, of course. Lawsuits to protect wolves, sage grouse, pigmy rabbits, bull trout and bighorn sheep have all been filed by WWP over the years, plus a host of other litigation, and they’ve won some significant victories.

Early on, Marvel tried to buy leases on state land in order to halt grazing on the theory that if he paid to have the land retired instead of grazed, the state was better off financially and environmentally. When his high bids were rebuffed, he took it to the Idaho Supreme Court and won. And when the State Land Board still refused to go along, he won a subsequent case in federal court using a civil rights law.

In 2005, WWP won a federal court injunction removing livestock from 800,000 acres of BLM-managed land in Idaho. And in 2007, WWP’s litigation strategy paid off in a big way when it was able to overturn Bush-era grazing regulations on 160 million acres of BLM land in 11 states.

They were also recently involved (with other parties) in a lawsuit that put wolves back on the Endangered Species list, at least temporarily, and won a case which stopped domestic sheep grazing on 65 percent of the Payette National Forest on the grounds they carried a disease that was killing Bighorn Sheep. WWP has also successfully forced the Washington State Department of Fish and Game to stop using two large tracts of its wildlife lands for cattle grazing.

Excluding revolution, there are basically two ways to initiate the kind of sweeping change Marvel is seeking: politics or litigation---and he has clearly opted for the latter. In a one-party state like Idaho, there’s little choice, he says. Lawsuits may not be the ultimate answer, Marvel concedes, but they are an effective way to focus public attention on an environmental problem, bring about change and, equally important, increase the cost of noncompliance for violators. “There just aren’t any significant examples of environmental laws being enforced without litigation or threat of litigation,” he says

More recently, however, Western Watersheds tried an alternate approach by making an agreement with the El Paso Corp. not to challenge its proposed pipeline from Wyoming to Oregon in exchange for a $15-million fund to be used for conservation easements, land purchases and a voluntary retirement of grazing permits. Ironically, a group of counties have challenged this agreement on the grounds it’s harmful to ranchers because, among other reasons, they will be pressured into selling their grazing rights by WWP lawsuits.

Not true, Marvel says: Ranchers will sell voluntarily because it’s in their best interest to sell. A WWP spokesman is quoted in the Idaho Statesman as saying it isn’t a coercive fund at all, but then goes on to note that WWP does go to court to enforce the nation’s environmental laws and “we’re holding the enforcement of existing laws over their head.”

The resistance of these county officials may be more a matter of culture than economics, John Freeman, senior fellow at the Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State, said in this same article. “Culture matters.”
By culture, he explained in a subsequent interview, he means a way of life and community values. This may help to explain why the angry reaction and resistance to Jon Marvel and the Western Watersheds program goes well beyond ranchers in many rural Idaho communities.

Marvel likes to talk about “the myth of the West,” the deeply ingrained glorification of cowboys and cows, noble, independent ranchers and echoes of “Home on the Range” that has obscured the destructive reality of this bogus culture for a century. “That myth is dying fast,” he claims. “Nobody makes Westerns any more. Young people today could care less. I know change is coming.”

And to bolster his point, he cites a survey that claims being a cowboy today is considered to be the worst job in the United States. The only two Idaho cowboys this reporter knows, however, apparently didn’t take part.

These are proud, independent, hard-working, self sufficient people who clearly love what they do, and when I complained to one about how hard it was to make a living these days, he replied there were plenty of jobs out there. Like what? I challenged him. “Like this one,” he laughed.

In the final analysis, it appears that the battle lines between Jon Marvel, Western Watersheds and the ranching community have been drawn. There is precious little room for compromise on the issues, and probably no room at all for politically bipartisan solutions on the land issues he champions.

Although Hailey, Idaho, where Marvel lives and works (and where Western Watersheds was just given the “Environmental Advocate of the Year” award by that city and the surrounding communities of Ketchum and Sun Valley), might be classified as a liberal community, Idaho remains a conservative Republican state. Ranchers retain a solid base of political power here and the current governor, a rancher himself, once boasted he would be the first in line to shoot a wolf when it became legal.

Nor is the national political outlook any more promising with the current Secretary of Interior, Ken Salazar, who has authority over the regulatory agencies that oversee federal public lands, is also a rancher by profession. “I’m deeply disappointed in the Obama administration,” Marvel concedes.

“There’s no change in behavior from Bush; it’s all extremely negative. I expected more, a lot more. I foolishly believed it was going to be different, but all we got were Clinton retreads. Ken Salazar has closed the door on change of any kind; it’s more of the same, an accommodation of vested interests.”

That, and the fact that upcoming November elections will, in all likelihood, make it look even darker on Marvel’s horizon, almost guarantees there will be only more contentious lawsuits and animosity ahead. The real winners look to be only one group---lawyers---who surely must rank somewhere not far below the cowboys on Jon Marvel’s survey, among the least-admired of any profession.

Resigned to Living With Wolves, More Ranchers Are Giving Deterrence Projects a Try

SPRINGERVILLE, Ariz. -- On a luminous fall afternoon, a couple of Carey Dobson's sheep graze in a pasture stretching across a high valley edged with ponderosa pines. A wire fence keeps them from wandering into the adjacent road.

But this is no ordinary fence. All along its length, long slips of magenta plastic flagging wave in the wind, like streamers on a parade float. No one knows exactly why, but wolves typically stay clear of these decorated fences. Dobson put up the "fladry" and electrified the fence about three years ago after losing nine sheep to wolves in one year.

So far, the combination of visual repellent and electric shock seems to be working.

"From the time we started doing that in 2007 up to now, we've had zero wolf depredations," Dobson said, sitting at the kitchen table of his family's spacious log home on a private inholding surrounded by the Apache National Forest. "I think the fence has a lot to do with it."

A few miles away, rancher Sydney Maddock and Eddie Lee, her ranch manager, have hired a range rider -- a cowboy or cowgirl who monitors the herd -- to make sure her cattle stay safe. They have also started allowing calves to grow bigger before turning them out onto their federal grazing allotment so that they are less vulnerable to depredation.

Wolves tend to prey on young, old or weak livestock, although they do sometimes kill healthy adults.

"I don't know if it's going to work out or not," Lee said, standing around a late afternoon campfire at his camp near a cattle and horse corral. "But it's been two years, and it seems to be working."

Meanwhile, on the New Mexico side of the Mexican wolf reintroduction area, about 70 miles to the east, rancher Alan Tackman is putting up a fence to keep his cattle from wandering up the mountain toward a known wolf den.

"They're not smart enough to remember, 'A wolf ate my baby here,'" said Pat Morrison, district ranger for the Glenwood District of the Gila National Forest in New Mexico, where Tackman's fence is being erected.

An elk calving area lies between the den and the fence line, and the hope is that the wolves will eat the elk calves -- typically their preferred prey -- and leave the cattle alone, Morrison said.

'Something everyone can get behind'

Such deterrence projects are slowly gaining favor with ranchers living in wolf country, and they reflect a new, more collaborative way of dealing with Mexican wolves, which the Fish and Wildlife Service reintroduced to Arizona and New Mexico in 1998.

For most of the Mexican wolf program's history, the focus has been on removing "problem" wolves that prey on livestock, either by killing the animals, relocating them in the wild, or retiring them to a holding facility. But wildlife officials and some ranchers say it is better for both livestock and wolves to prevent conflicts from happening in the first place.

"Nothing is as divisive as this," Chris Bagnoli, Mexican wolf interagency team leader for Arizona, said of the Mexican wolf reintroduction program. "But some folks have come to understand that they're here, and there are ways to live with it."

About 15 ranchers in Arizona and about a dozen in New Mexico have tried wolf deterrent strategies over the past several years, and many of them -- particularly in Arizona, where grazing is for the most part seasonal instead of year-round -- have seen some benefit.

"One of the most effective things you can do is separate cattle and wolves," said John Oakleaf, a senior Fish and Wildlife Service biologist with the Mexican wolf program. "Reducing wolf depredations -- that's a common goal for sure. That's something wolf biologists and ranchers and everyone can all get behind."

That does not mean, however, that ranchers have come to embrace having wolves in their midst.

"If they were to take the wolves out tomorrow, I'd be happy," said Barbara Mack, who has worked closely with Bagnoli to keep her 110 cattle and two dogs away from the local Blue Stem wolf pack in the Apache National Forest's rugged Alpine District. "But they are here, and we have to work with everybody to try to get along and to survive."

Antipathy toward the program is still strong, however, and some ranchers who are working with agencies and advocacy groups on deterrence projects have experienced a backlash -- even from family members.

"I got flak from my father, my neighbors," Dobson said. "But I want to stay here. I'm a fourth-generation rancher. The wolves are on us, so what are we going to do?"

But it took several years for Dobson to warm to the idea of taking a proactive approach to reducing wolf-livestock conflicts. Ten years ago, he was a vocal critic of the Mexican wolf reintroduction program.

In the winter of 2000, Dobson suspected that wolves "chewed up" the leg of a newborn stud colt. But after wildlife officials assured him there were no wolves in the area, he concluded that his guard dogs had attacked the colt and reluctantly put the dogs down. Soon after, he spotted a FWS agent in the area and was told a wolf had been shot, confirming his earlier suspicion.

"I lost a colt, two guard dogs, and I'd been lied to," he said. "I was so upset."

At the time, Dobson was so angry that he refused compensation from Defenders of Wildlife, which had set up a program to pay for confirmed wolf depredations of livestock.

But around 2006, after a spate of wolf depredations, he changed his mind and began collecting compensation while also working with Defenders and state and federal agencies on new deterrent strategies. He now receives weekly calls from FWS and the Arizona Game and Fish Department with updates on wolf activity in his area.

"I just got to the point where I'd had enough," he said. "It wasn't the wolf's fault. The wolf's an animal. It was the way things were being managed. I said, 'We need to come together and figure out what we're going to do.'"

Changes in funding

Money to fund prevention projects comes from a mix of private and government sources.

For more than a decade, Defenders of Wildlife paid ranchers for their losses and helped fund deterrence projects, but the group phased out its compensation program last month after the federal government established its own program, which will pay ranchers for livestock depredations and support conflict prevention projects.

The money for the federal interdiction fund comes from a $1 million outlay authorized under the 2009 Omnibus Public Land Management Act and issued last April to Arizona, New Mexico and eight other Western states to help support non-lethal programs to prevent wolf-livestock conflicts (Land Letter, April 1). Arizona and New Mexico each received $140,000 to fund such efforts.

The states will add matching funds, either by direct cash payments or through in-kind payments of labor, supplies and other supports. Craig Miller, who ran Defenders of Wildlife's compensation program for the past several years, said the group contributed about $45,000 to help establish the federal interdiction fund, but will now shift focus to its own conflict prevention program. The Mexican Wolf Fund, a non-advocacy group that funds wolf deterrent projects, will also contribute to the interdiction fund.

Both Defenders and ranchers say the new federally administered program should bring some advantages. A livestock compensation board made up of a range of stakeholders, including both ranchers and wildlife advocates, will decide what types of losses and deterrence projects merit funding.

Dobson and other ranchers hope the new system will allow compensation not only for the loss of livestock, but associated losses such as lower animal weights due to stress or fewer calves resulting from the loss of a cow that would have borne offspring over the course of her life.

"It allows people to feel they have some say in what's going on," Bagnoli said.

'Everyone's getting a little smarter'

Stakeholder groups will also likely benefit from several years of trial and error in implementing conflict prevention projects. Patrick Valentino, director of the Mexican Wolf Fund, said that agency officials, funders and ranchers now have a better understanding of what works and what does not.

"Given the experience over the past few years, I think everyone's getting a little smarter, maybe combining a couple of things, like fencing with feed, or feed with range riders," said Valentino, whose organization has funded conflict prevention projects since 2006. "These programs can work well together sometimes."

Variations in livestock operations, topography and behavior of both the livestock and the wolves also need to be considered when determining which method, or combination of methods, are likely to work best, added Bagnoli.

Relocation of cattle, use of fladry, range riders, fencing and radio-alarmed guard boxes, or "RAG boxes," that emit loud noises and flashing lights have all been used in the northern Rockies as well to deter wolves, with some success (Land Letter, March 18).

In the Great Lakes region, researchers are experimenting with "howl boxes," which play digital recordings of wolf howls in the rendezvous areas of five wolf packs. The goal is to trick the wolves into believing that another pack has claimed the same territory, in hopes that they will move to other areas (Land Letter, July 29).

These deterrent strategies are essential to the recovery of Mexican wolves in the Southwest, where after 12 years, there are only about 42 wolves -- 27 in Arizona and 15 in New Mexico -- those involved with the program say.

"I think in order for wolves to achieve recovery in ecologically meaningful levels, tolerance from landowners, from people using the landscape, is the most important component," Miller of Defenders of Wildlife said. "This isn't a biological problem, it's a social problem. The real challenge is in helping humans accept wolves as part of the landscape."

Yet Miller acknowledges that deterrence projects do not always work. In some cases, wolves have lost their fear of the deterrent, or ranchers lose interest in continuing the projects, which they typically contribute some funding or labor to.

But with more than two-thirds of the Blue Range Mexican wolf recovery area permitted for grazing, they are worth a try, agency officials say. "We're trying to make both the wolf and the grazing permittees viable here," said Morrison of the Gila National Forest's Glenwood District in New Mexico.

At the same time, even some ranchers who are trying deterrence projects still actively oppose the reintroduction program.

Tackman, for instance, is named as one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed in August by Catron and Otero counties and other New Mexico ranchers over changes to the program that they say have resulted in fewer removals of wolves that attack livestock. Tackman did not return calls seeking an interview for this story.

While some ranchers remain highly skeptical of conflict prevention projects, Dobson and others say the lack of depredations in areas where they have been tried demonstrates that wolves and livestock can co-exist.

Yet he wonders what will happen as wolf populations increase. FWS biologists set an informal target of 100 wolves on the landscape when the program first began, and a forthcoming update to the Mexican wolf recovery plan is likely to call for at least that many and possibly more (Land Letter, July 22).

"It can always come back and bite me on the rear. ... Everything could be taken away from ranchers," Dobson said. "But at least I know I've tried."

Reese writes from Santa Fe, N.M.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

NM pushes changes to outstanding waters proposal

The New Mexico Environment Department and conservation groups presented a compromise Tuesday to state regulators who are considering a proposal that would protect hundreds of miles of headwater streams, more than two dozen lakes and numerous wetlands in federal wilderness areas around New Mexico.

The department first petitioned the Water Quality Control Commission to designate headwaters in a dozen federal wilderness areas around the state as outstanding water sources, which would protect streams, lakes and wetlands by prohibiting any activities that would degrade water quality.

Under the compromise, temporary degradation of water quality would be allowed only in limited circumstances, such as during restoration or maintenance projects.

Supporters said the compromise better defines protections for outstanding waters and keeps in place the state's strict anti-degradation policy. But it immediately drew criticism from a ranchers' group that has been fighting the department's effort to designate the waterways as "outstanding national resources waters."

Dan Dolan, an attorney representing the New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association, said suggesting changes to the proposal during the hearing process does not give ranchers or others who are concerned enough time to review and present their cases.

"We have the agency changing its proposal to be something that it never was in the first place and that the public never got notice of," he said. "It's just another example of an environmental agency that does not really care what the public's input is."

State officials said they have tried to address the public's concerns and that development of the initial proposal included extensive public participation.

The hearing before the commission in Santa Fe is a continuation of a proceeding that started last month. Some groups involved in the case have been negotiating changes to the proposal's language over the last three weeks, but the ranchers contend that they were left out.

The hearing was scheduled to last through Friday. It will be up to the commission to approve, modify or reject the proposal. It could be December before the commission makes a final decision in the case.

"The cattle growers are just slowing the process down and stalling it as much as they can," said Bryan Bird of WildEarth Guardians, one of the groups that negotiated the compromise. "The bottom line is that a handful of public lands ranchers are holding the entire state's clean water hostage. I think that's inappropriate."

Pointing to citizens' signatures and support from municipalities and sportsmen's groups, Bird said protecting New Mexico's headwaters will help the state prepare for growing pressure on its limited water resources.

The Richardson administration began pushing an outstanding waters designation in 2008.

After dozens of public meetings, the environment department changed its proposal a few times to address the concerns of ranchers, water associations and others. It wasn't until May that the state presented its final petition to the commission.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Energy, environment rules may roll back with new governor

Neither of New Mexico's gubernatorial candidates — Democrat Diane Denish and Republican Susana Martinez — are likely to put environmental issues quite as high on their agenda as Gov. Bill Richardson.

They've already indicated they might overturn or weaken some environmental rules Richardson's administration has put in place, such as the pit rule for wastes from oil and gas production and the greenhouse gas emissions cap.

A governor can do a lot to upend or change environmental rules and orders approved under a predecessor. She can appoint her own people to commissions, direct those commissions to revisit rules and direct staff to ignore existing rules.

"There could be rollbacks of environmental regulations after the elections happen," said Jim Norton, director of the environmental protection division at the New Mexico Environment Department.

Denish at least has environment and energy listed as issues on her campaign website and provides a list of "six environmental principles to lead by" on her site and promotes the creation of "sustainable jobs."

Environment, water and energy were not "issues" topics listed on Martinez's official campaign website.

Follow the money

Thus far, oil and gas companies have been top industry donors to the Martinez campaign, giving her $481,125. Also among her major financial supporters are homebuilders ($462,801) and conservative issue groups ($250,000), according to Texas homebuilder Bob J. Perry, who funded the Swiftboat ad campaign against unsuccessful Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, gave her $350,000 in May.

Denish also has received money from the oil and gas industry ($71,400), much of it from companies in her hometown of Hobbs, in an area sometimes referred to as "Little Texas." Her biggest financial support has come from lawyers and lobbyists ($444,651) including labor unions, followed by real estate donors ($340,185).

Greenhouse gas cap

On some environmental issues, such as a proposed cap on greenhouse gas emissions, Martinez and Denish appear to have a similar stance at first glance. But while both oppose a state greenhouse gas cap and trade rule — they do so for different reasons.

Denish believes climate change is occurring, but that any effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions must be global and national, not state-by-state.

Martinez adheres to the climate change naysayer line, saying an emissions cap is anti-business, would increase taxes and isn't based on sound science.

The New Mexico Environmental Improvement Board held two weeks of heated hearings regarding a controversial greenhouse gas emissions rule. The New Mexico Environment Department and the nonprofit New Energy Economy have proposed separate regulations that would cap and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Any rule, if approved, would take effect in 2012. The EIB is scheduled to vote on the Environment Department petition on Election Day, Nov. 2.

The state petition seeks to require power plants, oil refineries and gas treatment facilities that produce more than 25,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide gas annually to reduce emissions by 2 percent a year from 2012 levels and allow industries to trade carbon credits within a Western states exchange.

Pit rule

In 2008, the state Oil Conservation Commission approved a rule to intended to reduce contamination of shallow groundwater aquifers from unlined pits that hold waste from oil and gas production.

The rule — proposed by a task force of oil and gas representatives, environmentalists, ranchers and local government representatives — requires producers to line pits used for temporarily storing production waste and later to haul the waste to a licensed disposal center.

Denish says "one size doesn't fit all" when it come to governmental rules and thinks the rule should be "revisited." In addition, she wants to adopt a process to make rulemaking more predictable and fair.

Martinez claims the pit rule has driven the cost per well up by "as much as" $250,000. But according to testimony by well producers during the pit rule hearing, the costs under the new rule run an extra $35,000 and $150,000, depending on the depth of the well. The $250,000 figure is the cost of cleaning up old "legacy pits" constructed before the pit rule.

Martinez also says New Mexico was the only state to see a drop in gas production in 2009 because the pit rule chased away producers. But Kansas also saw a decline in gas production. And the sharp drop in oil and gas prices was the major cause of reduced production in 2008 and 2009, according to a report on the Economic Impact of the Oil and Gas Industry by New Mexico State University economist C. Meghan Starbuck.

Oil and gas prices dropped by 70 percent or more in the last half of 2008 and remained depressed into 2009. Oil production in New Mexico actually increased in 2008 while natural gas production has seen a decline since two years before the pit rule.

This year, oil and gas leases in New Mexico brought in a record amount of money, according to the federal Bureau of Land Management.

"The idea that we're running industry out doesn't hold water," said petroleum engineer and attorney Mark Fesmire, head of the state's Oil Conservation Division.

Before the rule, field staff from the Oil Conservation Division found 800 cases of groundwater contamination due to oil and gas wastes. Since the final version of the rule was adopted, staff have found no contamination at pit sites.

Water realities

Neither candidate, in answering a specific question about the slow progress of adjudicating water rights, proposed a specific idea to help move those cases through the courts faster.

The snail's pace of water adjudications in the last century — establishing who owns what legal rights to water resources — remains a weak link in the New Mexico's ability to manage its water for the future while protecting senior water rights.

State Engineer John D'Antonio said additional funding and the lifting of a hiring freeze would help finish adjudications more quickly. But he doesn't expect that to happen during the state's current economic doldrums.

His office is involved in a dozen active adjudications involving 72,000 water-rights holders. He said his office has 50 vacancies and the litigation division has seen a 30 percent reduction in staff. "We have a bare-bones staff for adjudications," D'Antonio said. "Our goal is to finish these adjudications before starting new ones."

The largest, potentially most volatile water rights adjudication — the Middle Rio Grande area including Albuquerque — has yet to go to court.

The Republican candidate was targeted by an unattributed video posted on YouTube that accused the El Paso native of wanting to "send New Mexico's water to Texas." The video was taken down shortly after a few newspapers and bloggers wrote about it.

Martinez would have no power to send extra water to Texas if she became New Mexico's governor, even if that was her desire. Water shares from both the Pecos and Rio Grande rivers that flow through New Mexico into Texas are governed by interstate stream compacts and multi-state commissions.

Contact Staci Matlock at 986-3055 or