The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will settle a decade of lawsuits by allowing Mexican gray wolves to spread outside the long-standing recovery area in a wilderness on the Arizona-New Mexico border.
The agreement means that the federal biologists will no longer trap and remove any wild-born wolves that wander outside the area where they’ve struggled to establish a self-sustaining population for the past 15 years.
The agreement also allows the Fish and Wildlife Service to release wolves directly into New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness and also would not require USFWS to trap any wolves that wander into Arizona from Mexico.
“These agreements should breathe new life into the struggling Mexican gray wolf recovery program and expand the wolf’s habitat here,” said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity, which has repeatedly sued or filed administrative appeals on behalf of the reintroduced wolves.
On the other hand, Congressman Steve Pearce (R-NM) blasted the decision. “It is outrageous and unacceptable that New Mexicans’ lives and livelihoods are being put at risk and our tax dollars wasted.”
The agreement would allow the wolves to venture out of the recovery area near Alpine and the White Mountain Apache Reservation to a forested, mountainous expanse between Interstate 40 and Interstate 10. In theory, that could include all of Rim Country, although the wolves tend to avoid areas with roads and towns.
The long, expensive effort to reintroduce the smaller subspecies of gray wolves to Arizona effort has resulted in the establishment of 75 wolves in three breeding packs, with cars, humans and other factors killing off the wolves as quickly as they can breed and despite releases of new wolves from captive breeding programs. The population has seen little net increase in the past decade.
Elsewhere, reintroduction efforts in Montana, Idaho and other areas of the West has proved much more successful, with an estimated 5,000 wolves now living wild. In an unprecedented move, Congress adopted a rider on an unrelated bill that removed the gray wolves from the endangered species list nationally and turned over management of existing populations to state governments. By the time the smoke cleared, the federal government continued to manage wolf populations only in Yellowstone National Park and Arizona. Here, the subpopulation of Mexican gray wolves remains small and not self-sustaining. The Mexican gray wolves here remain listed as endangered as a distinct subspecies occupying a crucial part of the range.
Wolves in Arizona and New Mexico are considered an “experimental, non-essential” population. This allows the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service much more latitude in managing the population. Ranchers can kill wolves harassing livestock and biologists either kill or recapture wolves that attack livestock or pets or threaten people.
Environmental groups have also in the past compensated ranchers for cattle the wolves kill.
Nonetheless, the loosening of the restrictions on the wolves has drawn a sharp reaction from ranchers and hunting groups. The wolves live mostly on deer and elk. Studies elsewhere have shown that wolves don’t often attack cattle and virtually never attack people.
Many studies have shown that when wolves have enough deer, elk and other prey, cattle constitute only about 1 percent of their diet. However, some studies have shown that wolves may shift their preference to cattle, depending on cattle management practices. For instance, in Canada wolf packs drawn to a “bone yard” where ranchers disposed of their cattle carcasses started out scavenging the remains. After they got a taste for cattle, livestock became 45 percent of their diet.
Many studies have shown that wolf packs can have a big impact on deer and elk populations. When the federal government reintroduced wolves to Yellowstone National Park, it led to a 50 percent decline in the elk herds.
On the other hand, many ecologists and biologists hailed that change. They note that as a keystone predator, wolves play a crucial role in the food chain. The reduction of the elk herds in Yellowstone allowed the re-growth of cottonwood and aspen, which the elk had munched down to a nub. Not only did the wolves cull the elk herds, but the elk grew much more cautious and fed in larger groups — moving ceaselessly — to avoid the wolf packs. That prevented the elk from heading into the willow and cottonwood thickets and eating them down to the stumps.
The introduction of the wolves also sharply reduced the coyote population, which proved a boon to fox and beaver.