Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Mexican gray wolves face new challenges in struggle for survival

Life isn't getting any easier for Mexican gray wolves struggling against extinction.

Both politics and nature have produced new hurdles for an animal reintroduced in 1998 to vast native ranges in Arizona and New Mexico. Currently, about 50 wolves live in the wild.

The Wallow Fire, which scorched more than a half-million acres, mostly in Arizona, blazed through prime wolf habitat. A June 21 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service update said there was no evidence wolves had been killed in the fire. Adult wolves wearing radio collars were located near three dens in the burn area, but wildlife officials were still trying to determine whether pups survived. The report gives a status report on 10 packs, all of which were "exhibiting denning behavior."

It appears the wolves will survive the devastating wildfire. The politics, however, are influenced by a variety of competing ideologies ranging from ranching economics to ecosystem health that have given the Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Program a herky-jerky gait.

New Mexico's new governor, Susana Martinez, provided the most recent turn. Martinez replaced four members of the New Mexico State Game Commission, which on June 9 voted to end the state's participation in the recovery program. State wildlife personnel officially ceased their activities on Friday.

"The governor's concerns remain the same about the real and various risks of the program - everything from the cost of livestock that is lost to basic safety concerns of parents and families," said Martinez spokesman Scott Darnell in an email. "She believes we must find an equitable and fair solution to this problem, one that, in particular, provides for compensation to our hard-working ranch families for the loss of their livelihood."
Before the commission voted, Michael Robinson, with the Center for Biodiversity, sent a letter to Martinez endorsed by 12 other national and local conservation groups.

"There is strong and growing support nationally, throughout New Mexico and in the Gila National Forest region for this beautiful, intelligent, social animal that is uniquely adapted to the arid Southwest but is beleaguered and at great risk of extinction," Robinson wrote. He exhorted Martinez and her game commission appointees to "take a stance consistent with dependable science and the broad public interest."

Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson - a Democrat who preceded Republican Martinez - had directed state wildlife officials to stop trapping and killing wolves that were preying on cattle. Wolf advocates hailed that decision and supported state efforts to protect cattle, which included fencing livestock out of wolf denning areas, hazing wolves that venture into potential conflict areas and wolf feeding programs.

That approach, Robinson said, kept packs intact and caused the number of cattle killed by wolves to drop from 36 in 2007 to nine in 2010.

Nonetheless, officials in New Mexico's Catron County - which has large areas of public land designated for wolf recovery - are committed to ending the recovery program. With dwindling water supplies and other hardships, the last thing the livestock industry needs is another predator, said Catron County Commission chairman Hugh B. McKeen. County officials had asked Martinez to end the state's participation.

"Catron County engineered the ouster of New Mexico Game and Fish from the program," Robinson said in a telephone interview. "If there is depredation, I can see them (Catron County ranchers) immediately start clamoring for wolf removal."

McKeen has a different explanation for the drop in wolf attacks. He said wildlife officials under Richardson were feeding the wolves in an effort to ensure those numbers went down. Yet he also says that fewer area ranchers are reporting livestock depredations.

"So many ranchers are fed up with losing cattle," McKeen said. "And we don't want these federal people on our land."

Tod Stevenson, director of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, does not believe the changes will significantly impact the program.

"We will not have a direct hand in dealing with those on-the-ground, day-to-day issues," Stevenson said. "But this is a federal program and it always has been a federal program. We expect the (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) will staff up to continue providing those services."

Fish and Wildlife Service officials did not respond Friday to numerous phone messages requesting an interview.

New Mexico wildlife officials still will conduct biennial status reviews of state endangered species, Stevenson said. And they will continue to conduct law enforcement activities related to taking, possessing, selling or transporting any species on the state's endangered list.

"We will continue to fully investigate and prosecute violators to the best of our ability," Stevenson said.

Since the recovery program began 13 years ago, New Mexico has invested about $507,644. Federal funds obtained by the state over that time amounted to more than $1.4 million bringing the total investment to slightly more than $1.9 million. Two full-time staff members were involved, both of whom will be given the opportunity to find other positions within the department, Stevenson said.

State wildlife officials trapped and transplanted wolves; collared and tracked them; conducted feeding programs, provided range riders, fence modifications and other livestock management tools; made recommendations about wolf removals; and provided wolf location information to landowners and livestock producers, Stevenson said.

Still unknown is whether a $60,000 federal grant that requires a dollar-for-dollar state match will be maintained, Stevenson said. The money was used to reimburse ranchers whose livestock are killed by wolves and to pay for projects that minimize wolf impacts on livestock. Stevenson said his department is negotiating with the FIsh and Wildlife Service to keep that money in the program.

"We haven't got that completely resolved as to what mechanism we use," Stevenson said. "I'm pretty confident, one way or another, that we will get that done."

McKeen said he hopes they get the money "with no strings attached." He would like to see less bureaucracy involved in getting reimbursed for wolf kills and he said prevention techniques do not work.

Wolves are "not going to stay there in the Gila Wilderness," McKeen said. "They came out and started killing cattle again."

The wolf program is just the most recent example of forest mismanagement, McKeen said. A series of bad decisions - Forest Service actions that cut back on grazing and logging - are killing the livestock industry in Catron County, said McKeen, whose grandfather arrived there in 1886.

Logging would have reduced the severity of the Wallow Fire by removing deadwood that has been building up for decades, he said. Periodic wildfires in uninhabited areas also should be left to burn, he said. Without such thinning, trees suck groundwater and dry up wells, he said. Ranchers already deal with numerous other predators, including mountain lions and black bears.

McKeen has heard reports from Yellowstone National Park, where biologists say wolves are benefitting the ecosystem. Elk and deer herds are culled, making them healthier. Wolves also push the herds out of stream beds, allowing them to recover and support a wide variety of plants and animals.

"It's just a lot of hype," Mc-Keen said. "The wolves are here to further put us out of business."

In the meantime, the Mexican gray wolf hangs on.

Robinson said a successful program, which would result in a self-sustaining population, depends on more frequent releases, particularly in New Mexico.

In a May report, an interagency reintroduction team ranked 32 potential wolf release sites based on a formula that considered the results of past releases; appropriate distances from residences, towns, livestock, the recovery area boundary and other territorial wolves; and proximity to deer and elk, Robinson said. "The three top-ranked sites were all in the Gila Wilderness" part of which is in Catron County, he said.

In his letter, Robinson told Martinez that the Fish and Wildlife Service appears to be holding back on releases "in deference to perceived lack of support by your administration."

Chris Roberts writes for the El Paso Times, a member of the Texas-New Mexico Newspapers Partnership, and may be reached at chrisr@elpasotimes.com; (915) 546-6136.

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