The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has released a revised proposal to save the endangered Mexican gray wolf by including all of Rim Country in a sprawling, two-state area where it could introduce new wolf packs.
The proposal would essentially allow the wolves to wander outside that core reintroduction area into all of Arizona and New Mexico south of Interstate 40, in an attempt to connect the recovering wolf population in the United States with reintroduced populations in Mexico.
The proposal did respond to pleas to loosen restrictions on killing or harassing wolves to protect pets and cattle.
However, the USFWS proposal largely rejected a plan by Arizona Game and Fish and a coalition of other concerned parties to limit the reintroduction efforts to a much smaller area. That plan would have put the western limit to the reintroduction area along the boundary of the Hellsgate Wilderness area east of Payson.
The USFWS proposal would instead include the Payson and Young Ranger Districts of the Tonto National Forest in the core area for introductions, which would stretch through the White Mountains to the current reintroduction area and on into New Mexico.
The new proposal would also designate all of the state east of Highway 93 and south of Interstate 40 as an area the wolves could disburse into and where the USFWS could move already introduced wolves around to avoid conflicts with people or with each other.
The USFWS will hold hearings on the proposal on Monday, Aug. 11 in Pinetop. Biologists will explain the proposal at an informational session from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and then hold a public hearing to get testimony from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. It will also accept comments on the plan which offer specific changes or information to help refine the proposal.
For the past decade, USFWS has tried to build up a population of at least 100 wolves as part of an “experimental, non-essential” population, which allows much greater latitude in management than a simple endangered species designation. The population around Alpine, the Blue Ridge Primitive area and on into New Mexico this year reached 83, a new record. However, biologists say they’ve run out of suitable territory in the existing recovery area to introduce any more wolf packs.
USFWS regional director Ben Tuggle said, “Over the last 16 years, we have learned much about managing a wild population of Mexican wolves and it is clear that the current rule does not provide the clarity or the flexibility needed to effectively manage the experimental population in a working landscape. We need to remedy that so we can continue wolf reintroductions while being responsive to the diverse needs of local communities.”
The USFWS is still working on a detailed environmental impact statement on the proposal, which will be based on the proposed, expanded boundaries.
Previous proposals for an expansion of the recovery area have drawn sharply contrasting reactions. Many conservationist groups have urged as large a recovery area as possible, given the small size of the wolf population and the large territories wolf packs defend from other wolves.
However, many ranchers, hunters and others have fought to limit the recovery area for fear the expanding wolf packs would kill so many cattle they’ll drive struggling ranchers out of business or reduce the deer and elk herds. Arizona’s 135,000 hunters contribute about $127 million annually to the state’s economy, according to a Game and Fish study.
The proposed change in the rules would allow people to drive off or kill wolves in the act of attacking pets, cattle or other domesticated animals in the extended recovery area. However, they would have to prove the wolf was attacking a pet or domestic animal. Ranchers and other landowners could also get permits to harass or kill wolves who posed a threat to people, animals or property.
The analysis that came with the proposed revisions predicted the big expansion in the area for reintroductions would not have a major impact on either elk and deer populations or ranchers, based on the experience of the last 16 years in the existing recovery area.
The preliminary analysis concluded Arizona and New Mexico together contribute about 2.5 percent to the nation’s beef supply. About 90 percent of the 12,000 ranches in Arizona and New Mexico have fewer than 100 cattle. These ranches produce about 10 percent of the beef in the region, with a handful of ranches with more than 2,500 head responsible for more than half of the state’s beef production.
Between 1998 and 2013 in the current recovery area, the wolves killed about 56 cows and calves annually — which includes both the confirmed and the unconfirmed livestock kills for a significantly smaller population than now exists. That worked out to a rate of about 118 kills for every 100 wolves each year. The wolves reduced herds by .01 percent for both confirmed and unconfirmed kills, the study concluded. Using 2012 prices, each 100 wolves would kill about $98,000 worth of cattle annually. Expanding the range would increase the number of wolves to about 285 by 2026, which could increase the annual livestock kills.
The USFWS operates a program that will pay full compensation for confirmed kills and 50 percent compensation for suspected kills, although many ranchers say the program doesn’t fully reimburse them or take into account their true losses.
The analysis also suggested the presence of wolves would make the cattle more alert and skittish and probably prevent them for loitering in riparian areas. All of that would reduce average cattle weights by about 6 percent in areas claimed by a wolf pack. That could also eat into a ranch’s profit.
However, while the wolves could have a significant impact on a specific small ranch operation, the impact would be negligible on the larger operations that provide most of the cattle, the analysis concluded.
The report also concluded the expansion of the wolf territory would have a negligible impact on deer and elk populations, treasured by hunters and many tourists as well.
The wolves tend to prey on calves and fawns and older, often weaker deer and elk. By contrast, hunters go for the largest elk. As a result, the kills of the wolves probably won’t have much effect on the hunters.
Moreover, the Arizona Game and Fish Department did a game survey of deer and elk in the current wolf recovery and reintroduction area. The study found no noticeable impact on the number of deer and elk in the areas claimed by the wolf packs.
That contrasts with studies in Yellowstone after the reintroduction of the gray wolf, which found a roughly 50 percent decline in elk populations. However, the sharp decrease in elk populations there resulted in a big recovery of the heavily grazed riparian areas, which benefited a host of other species.
The analysis also included reactions to the rule changes by four undisclosed scientists, who critiqued the scientific basis for the recommendations.
One review pointed out that the proposal put too much emphasis on reducing wolf mortality which has been low and not enough on figuring out why the wolves have had so few pups that survived. For instance, in 2012 the 75 wolves in the existing reintroduction area had only four breeding pairs. The 16 percent annual mortality for the existing population “is surprising low for almost all wolf populations,” the reviewer concluded. “It appears from the data there’s a huge recruitment problem, there is not a wolf mortality problem.”
He said the program lacks scientific evidence for many key assumptions, like how many wolves in the wild it takes to establish a stable, self-sustaining population. The overall plan set the goal at 100, but the reviewer said it’s likely the real number is closer to 300.
He also noted that the USFWS seems to have spent a lot more time and resources on “endless federal bureaucratic issues, litigation response and settlements, rather than on scientific inquiry, analysis, publication and subsequent modification of field management.”
That scientific reviewer concluded the plan should not make an open-ended promise to remove wolves whenever private landowners complain without demonstrating the wolves have caused some damage or danger.
“The rule should be crystal clear and then it is easy to implement and for the public to understand and trust the Forest Service. For example, if a loner is on private land 10 percent of the time, will the Service try to remove it? What if nine out of 10 landowners are OK, but one wants the wolves removed? What if nine landowners want it removed, but the one with 90 percent of the pack territory wants them left alone? How much time do they have to spend on private land before the Service tries to search them out and remove them?”
The reviewer also suggested the plan should give Arizona and New Mexico a more prominent role in management of the expanding wolf populations.
All the scientific reviewers offered detailed critiques. However, they all agreed with the proposal’s suggestion that the success of the reintroduction effort depends on the huge expansion of the recovery areas.