Hearing Slated On Wolf Recovery Area

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As controversy builds, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will hold a hearing on changing the rules for the reintroduction of Mexican gray wolves at a hearing at the Hon-Dah Conference Center in Pinetop this afternoon and evening.

The new rules would dramatically expand the area in which the endangered subspecies of wolf could wander and provide far more terrain in which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could release wolves from its captive breeding program.

Federal biologists proposed the rule change after struggling for more than a decade to build up a self-sustaining population of Mexican gray wolves in the Blue Ridge area along the Arizona/New Mexico border. About 75 wolves now live in the wild, but the current rules require biologists to continually recapture any wolves that leave the recovery area. Moreover, they’ve run out of good places to establish additional wolf packs, since the established packs often drive away newcomers.

However, the new rules expand the recovery area to a vast swath of land between Interstate 40 and Interstate 10 all the way across the middle of Arizona and on into the bulk of New Mexico.

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Photo courtesy of Southwest Wildlife Scottsdale

However, the proposal would also keep in place rules that would allow ranchers and others to kill wolves that become a nuisance by attacking cattle, pets or threatening humans. Although none of the introduced wolves have attacked any humans since the introduction effort began 15 years ago, they have killed cattle and in some cases attacked dogs. The proposal would manage the wolves in the expanded area as a “nonessential experimental population,” which allows for the continued removal of killing problem wolves.

The information meeting and hearing in Pinetop, Ariz., will be held at the Hon-Dah Conference Center, 777 Highway 260 (three miles outside of Pinetop at the Junction of Hwy. 260 and Hwy. 73). The public information meeting is from 3:30 to 5 p.m. (doors open at 3 p.m.), followed by a public hearing for recording comments from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

People who want to talk can submit a comment card prior to 5:45. Elected officials can all speak, but other comments will be drawn at random from the comment cards. The comment period on the proposal will remain open through Dec. 17. People can submit comments on the Web at http://www.fws.gov/southwest/ es/mexicanwolf/ .

Reaction to the proposals have varied widely.

Many Rim Country residents have express­ed alarm at the possibility the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could begin releasing captive-reared wolves in nearby wilderness areas, like Four Peaks or Hellsgate. Wolves can travel hundreds of miles in a matter of weeks, especially young wolves and reintroduced wolves who have not established a territory or joined a pack with a territory already set.

On the other hand, many other groups strongly support the reintroduction efforts. They maintain that the rules allowing ranchers and residents to kill wolves will doom the reintroduction effort. They say that wolves contribute to the natural balance by keeping elk herds and coyote populations in check. The wolves also benefit other species that scavenge from their kills including foxes, bald and golden eagles and others. They argue that the wolves haven’t attacked any humans in the 15-year history of the reintroduction project.

On the other hand, many hunting groups opposed the reintroduction, in part because the establishment of wolf populations elsewhere has resulted in big declines in deer and elk populations. In Yellowstone, elk herds dropped by more than 50 percent with the return of the wolves. On the other hand, the reduction of the elk herds proved a boon to riparian areas and all the species that depend on them.

Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin says she can accept the need to let wolves gradually spread outward from the existing re-introduction area, but opposes releases of captive-reared wolves in Gila County. She maintains that despite the conditioning to make the captive bred wolves avoid humans, the initially released wolves won’t be skilled hunters and may be more likely to prey on cattle and threaten pets and humans.

She said if wolves were introduced into remote areas some 200 miles from Gila County, by the time they reached more populated areas they would have learned to hunt and act more like wild wolves. She also maintained that keeping the experimental population rules that allow the removal or killing of problem wolves remains essential.

The federal government has spent millions on the effort to establish a self-sustaining population of the Mexican gray wolves along the Arizona/New Mexico border — but has ended up killing or removing almost half the wolves released.

Ranchers insist that the wolves have consistently killed cattle, grazing on public lands in the recovery area.

For instance, the federal biologists are currently trying to hunt down and recapture a wolf in the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area suspected of killing cattle. Two wolves who constituted the Paradise pack were suspected of killing four cows or calves in a one-year period. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife wolf recovery team decided to capture the two wolves, hoping that would prevent the rest of the pack from continuing to prey on cattle. The biologists did capture one of the wolves. But the other wolf had in the meantime broken up with the captured wolf and taken up with another wolf in the area not implicated in livestock attacks. The new pair continued hunting in the same area, however. So over the objections of wolf advocacy groups, the USFWS has decided to continue efforts to capture the remaining wolf thought to have preyed on cattle months earlier. On Nov. 14, the Mexican Wolf Recovery coordinator decided the team of biologists would spend another 90 days using “non-lethal” means to capture the wolf.

Presumably, such intensive efforts to keep the wolves from killing cattle would continue under the new rules, in a much expanded territory. However, if one of the wolves wandered outside the expanded recovery area, they would actually gain more protection as an endangered species not part of a “nonessential experimental” population.

The USFWS wants to remove gray wolves nationally from the endangered species list, but continue to manage the Mexican gray wolf subpopulation as an endangered population. USFWS in accordance with an act of Congress has already turned over management of recovering wolf populations to several western states, which promptly set up hunting seasons on the wolves.

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