A federal plan to dramatically increase the range of reintroduced Mexican gray wolves to include most of Gila County has provoked a flurry of reaction — much of it critical.
The Gila County Board of Supervisors last week approved a 14-page position paper asking a blizzard of questions about the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plan to salvage the faltering, 15-year-old effort by expanding the area for the wolves from a remote expanse along the Arizona-New Mexico border to include much of central Arizona and New Mexico.
The county also appealed to the USFWS to delay the new rules.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in response to the reaction extended the public comment period on the plan from today to Oct. 28.
Last week, one longtime outfitter and guide decried the plan speaking at the Shoot for the Heart series of lectures on outdoor topics in Payson. Steve Smith said the captive-reared wolves won’t behave like wild-reared wolves and may not represent a pure strain anyway. He suggested that if the wolves were allowed to spread outside of the existing recovery area, they’d prey on cattle and reduce elk herds — to the detriment of hunters and ranchers.
The Arizona Department of Game and Fish Commission has also adopted a resolution asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to hold pubic hearings on the plan in Arizona.
The new area for possible release of new wolves would encompass the entire swathe of Arizona between Interstate 40 and Interstate 10, which includes all of Rim Country — plus lots of desert terrain.
The furor centers on a dramatic expansion in the range of the reintroduced wolves after biologists concluded that the remote tract of wilderness land couldn’t sustain a viable population of the once plentiful subspecies of gray wolves.
The biologists running the program want to establish a self-sustaining population of at least 100 Mexican gray wolves in Arizona and New Mexico. After a decade of frustration and stagnation, they recommended the expansion after essentially running out of places they could establish new wolf packs. An estimated 75 wolves now roam across the 5,000-square-mile Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area.
However, people have been killing the wolves at such a rate that the population growth rate has basically stalled. Between 1998 and 2012, some 92 wolves have died — 50 of them shot, 14 hit by cars, 17 from natural causes, three from the stress of being recaptured and eight from unknown causes.
The rules for the current “experimental” population have also led biologists to kill or recapture wolves either because they wander outside the designated recovery area or harass or kill cattle. Of the 92 wolves released since 1998, biologists have permanently removed 36 and temporarily moved or removed 118 — since they have shifted some wolves around more than once. The highly territorial wolf packs defend a large home territory. When packs get too big, the younger wolves head off on their own. Moreover, an existing pack will often drive out new wolves released in their area. As a result, biologists have only managed to release one new wolf into the existing recovery area in the past several years.
The environmental impact statement on the proposed rule change concluded, “our current management regulations are unlikely to enable us to attain a viable, self-sustaining population of Mexican wolves in the wild.”
This led the biologists running the program to propose expanding the area in which new wolves could be released from a captive-breeding population of about 250. All of those wolves come from just seven wolves captured in the wild from the last three packs in the U.S. Many of those seven original wolves are closely related, which means the reintroduced population still struggles with the debilitating effects on reproduction of inbreeding.
The new regulations would also stop the practice of recapturing wolves that wander out of the recovery area. The biologists argue that this would allow the packs of reintroduced wolves to gradually colonize surrounding areas. So far the reintroduced wolves have lived mostly on elk and deer, although they have also preyed on cattle. The biologists argue the reintroduced wolves will seek out remote areas with lots of elk and deer and avoid inhabited areas with a lot of roads.
However, biologists would still capture or kill wolves that kill or harass cattle or grow too bold around people. People could also still kill wolves attacking cattle or pets.