By Susan Montoya Bryan on MNN.com
Reintroduction of Mexican gray wolves into the American Southwest has caused major problems for some ranchers.
A decade has passed since the federal government began returning
endangered Mexican wolves to their historic range in the Southwest. It
hasn't worked out — for the wolves, for ranchers, for conservationists or
for federal biologists.
And that has resulted in frustration and resentment by many involved in the reintroduction program along the Arizona-New Mexico border, a landscape of sprawling pine and spruce forests, cold-water lakes and clear streams.
"I believe in being a good steward of the land and preserving it for
generations to come, but this is ridiculous," said Ed Wehrheim, who heads
the county commission in Catron County, in the heart of wolf country. "I've
had ranchers' wives come to me just bawling because everything they and
their parents have worked for is going down the drain."
Four ranches have gone out of business since the wolf reintroduction
began and another four are expected to do the same before next summer,
The region has been hit by drought and cattle prices aren't what they
used to be, but Wehrheim said pressure from environmentalists and hundreds
of livestock kills by Mexican gray wolves over the past decade have only
made things worse.
Environmentalists argue that grazing practices are part of the problem
and the wolf reintroduction program has failed because of mismanagement by
the federal government.
In the middle stands Bud Fazio, coordinator of the Mexican gray wolf
The program is at a crossroads, and Fazio said he hopes to bring everyone
back to the table to find a way to move forward, quell concerns of critical
environmentalists and gain the confidence of wary ranchers.
"One thing about wolves is they bring out extreme emotions and feelings
and attitudes, so it is an extra challenge," he said. "There is some middle
ground. There is some balance, but my sense is that so far we haven't found
that in the Southwest and we need to."
A subspecies of the gray wolf, the Mexican wolf was exterminated in the
wild by the 1930s. The government began reintroducing wolves in 1998 along
the Arizona-New Mexico line, in a territory of more than 4 million acres
interspersed with forests, private land and towns.
There are about 50 wolves in the wild in Arizona and New Mexico, but
that's half of what biologists had hoped to have by now.
Federal, state and other officials involved in wolf recovery are
scheduled to meet next week in Albuquerque for the first of many "frank
discussions" about the future of the program, Fazio said.
Part of the reason for the talks is a recent settlement with
environmentalists that called for an end to a three-strikes rule that
allowed wildlife managers to trap or shoot wolves that had killed at least
three head of livestock within a year.
The settlement also made clear that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
has control over the program, rather than a committee formed in 2003 to
bring other agencies into the recovery effort.
The original rule that established the reintroduction program still
allows managers to remove problem wolves, but Fazio said officials will now
consider many factors — such as the wolf's genetic value to the program and
its reproductive success — before making decisions on keeping an animal in
"Everything remains on the table in terms of an option for managing
wolves and that does include removal of live animals or lethal removal,"
Fazio said. "What is different is that a whole suite of things, broader than
before, will be taken into account."
Wehrheim and the New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association maintain the
settlement changes nothing because the wolf program had already started to
leave wolves with more than three strikes in the wild. They pointed to the
Middle Fork pack, which was blamed for 10 livestock kills in two months.
The pack includes four pups and two adults, both of which are missing
their front left paws.
Federal biologists say the pack is now hunting elk and relying less on
strategically placed food caches.
Ranchers say that leaving the maimed wolves in the wild encourages them
to go after easy prey such as calves.
"It's a problem of the program, not a problem of the wolf," Catron County
Manager Bill Aymar said.
The Center for Biological Diversity also has been critical of the
program, but the group believes the wolves should be left in the wild and
critical habitat declared for the species to recover.
Wehrheim told New Mexico legislators in Santa Fe this week that ranchers
in southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona can't afford to live
with the wolves if the program remains unchanged and the federal
government's plan for compensating livestock losses goes unfunded.
"It's very, very serious for Catron County and all of the wolf recovery
area," he said. "We don't see any ranching existing with the wolf. We don't
see any hunting existing with the wolf. We're talking tens of millions of
dollars of loss."
He gave the example of a third-generation ranch that harvested about 200
calves annually before going out of business earlier this year. The
operation was capable of bringing in more than $1 million in tax and other
revenues to the county.
Tod Stevenson, director of the New Mexico Game and Fish Department,
testified that his agency and the state want to make sure Catron County and
its ranchers can survive on the landscape.
"That's the best way that we can continue to manage wildlife, is to have them as partners out there on the ground," he said. "It's critical that we come up with a balance to achieve that."