Everyone has more time to sound off on plans to dramatically expand the area where endangered Mexican gray wolves can roam.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has announced that it will continue taking comments until Dec. 17 on the plan to expand the reintroduction area for the wolves to include the southern two-thirds of New Mexico and much of central Arizona — including all of Rim Country.
Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin said she hopes that even if the reintroduction effort requires letting the wolves wander out of the current, remote reintroduction area, the federal biologists won’t actually release wolves in Gila County and won’t revoke the current rule that allows ranchers to kill wolves attacking cattle and property owners to kill wolves attacking pets or threatening people.
She said she could accept the expansion “if they don’t release them here — but continue releasing them in the wilds of the Blue (on the Arizona-New Mexico border). By the time they got here they’d be more wolf than dog. But only as long as we keep the rule so that when they get here, if they are eating your dog — we can shoot them if we have to.”
The USFWS has spent a decade trying to use releases from a captive breeding program to re-establish a self-sustaining population of the Mexican gray wolves in a remote area near Alpine that straddles the Arizona-New Mexico border.
The federal government has spent millions to establish the current population of about 75 wolves as an “experimental” population. That gives them the latitude to kill or recapture wolves that get too used to humans or prey on cattle. They have also recaptured wolves that wander out of that core recovery area.
Biologists concluded the current recovery area doesn’t provide enough suitable land for the highly territorial wolf packs and that the need to constantly remove wolves that stray outside the core area will make it impossible to establish a self-sustaining population.
Advocates for the wolf re-introduction program have largely supported the expansion, saying the current rules have led to the death or recapture of more than half of the wolves released and driven up the cost of the program. They note wolves virtually never harm people, avoid settled areas and generally prefer deer and elk and other game to cattle.
Critics of the program argue that some of the wolves have learned to prey on cattle and an expanding population of wolves will sharply reduce deer and elk populations, to the detriment of hunters, who contribute significantly to rural economies. They maintain the new rules will eventually bring wolves close to forest communities like Payson. They also fear that captive-reared wolves won’t act like normal, wild wolves — despite efforts to keep the captive reared wolves from getting used to people.
Gray wolves once roamed throughout North America since their extermination in the wild. Reintroduction efforts elsewhere have resulted in the removal of the gray wolf from the endangered species list, partly as a result of an unusual act of Congress. However, the smaller, distinct Mexican gray wolf remains endangered, despite a 15-year reintroduction effort.
Current plans include more hearings in Denver, Albuquerque, Sacramento and a Dec. 3 information meeting in Pinetop at the Hon-Dah Conference Center. The Pinetop meeting would include a 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. public information session and a 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. session for recorded comments on the proposal.
The controversy about the management of the wolf population even under the current rules got a nudge recently with the announcement that federal biologists will attempt to recapture three wolves thought to have killed cattle. The USFWS and the Arizona Game and Fish Department plan to use helicopters and tranquilizer darts to capture two males and one female implicated in attacks on cattle.
The Centers for Biological Diversity protested the plans to remove the three wolves. About 75 wolves remain in the wild, but only three breeding pairs. All of the wolves in the wild and in the captive breeding program are descended from seven wolves originally captured in the wild. Since the start of the reintroduction effort 15 years ago, government officials have removed 54 reintroduced wolves from the wild, including 19 killed accidentally in recapture efforts.
Removing the three wild-born wolves will hurt the struggling reintroduction effort, insisted Michael Robinson, conservation advocate for the Centers for Biological Diversity. “Fish and Wildlife has shot and trapped many genetically valuable removes, removed them to captivity and did not breed them in any case.”
The proposed overhaul of the rules would classify the Mexican gray wolves as an endangered subspecies. However, the rules would allow people to kill wolves that attack pets or threaten people and would allow ranchers to kill wolves that attack or harass cattle.
On the other hand, many local hunting advocates have worked to rally opposition to the reintroduction program. James Goughnour wrote a letter to the Roundup quoting a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimate that the cost of the wolf reintroduction program has totaled at least $29 million, compared to an original cost estimate of $7 million.
Goughnour said a single wolf will eat about 52 large, hoofed animals annually — either deer, elk or livestock. “This is causing economic impacts to states and communities since less hunting permits are issued,” he wrote.
The main change would be that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could introduce wolves in a far larger area, including the southern two-thirds of New Mexico and a swath of central Arizona between Interstate 40 and Interstate 10. One option could expand that area all the way to the Mexican border, so that the Mexican gray wolves in the U.S. could perhaps mingle with small populations of Mexican gray wolves in the Sierra Madres of Mexico.
Studies show that wolves remain among the least likely to attack people of any predator — including bears or mountain lions common in much of Rim Country. There are no confirmed cases of attacks on people involving Mexican gray wolves, according to a summary of wolf attacks in Wikipedia.
By contrast, an average of about six Arizona drivers die each year after their cars hit elk on the roadway.
Part of the objection to reintroducing wolves comes from hunters who fear that wolf packs will reduce the number of deer and elk. When wolves returned to Yellowstone, they reduced elk herds by about 50 percent.
However, biologists said the introduction of the wolves also greatly benefited a host of other species including bald eagles and others that fed on the remains of the wolves’ kills. The return of the wolves also proved a huge boon to aspen and cottonwoods, which the huge herds of elk had decimated. A host of other species benefited from the recovery of the cottonwoods and aspen.