Rim Country Sen. Chester Crandell (R-Heber) has taken the lead in pressing for legislation to limit the reintroduction of Mexican Gray Wolves in Arizona.
He has supported or introduced bills that would encourage Arizona residents to trap the endangered wolves in violation of federal laws (SB 1211), set aside $250,000 so that state can file lawsuits concerning the federal effort (SB 1212) and sponsored a resolution against the reintroduction program (SCR 1006).
All three measures have passed the Senate and await action in the House.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has announced plans to pair two wild-born wolves with two captive-reared wolves then release the two mated pairs back into the wild.
The USFWS hasn’t released captive-reared wolves into the wild along the border of Arizona and New Mexico for some time, but decided to release the additional wolves to replace two wolves shot illegally last year.
The USFWS also continues to study the possible impact of expanding the wolf reintroduction area to include almost all of Arizona south of Interstate 40, which would include all of Rim Country.
Currently, the USFWS rules require biologists to recapture any of the 83 known Mexican Gray Wolves that wander out of the remote recovery area. Biologists have pushed for an expanded reintroduction area to give the wolf packs room to hunt without coming into conflict with one another. The USFWS plan doesn’t detail areas where biologists might try to introduce new groups of wolves specifically.
After almost 15 years of effort, the number of wolves in the wild has expanded to at least 83 — just short of the initial goal of 100. After stagnating for years, the number of wolves has risen steadily in the past three years.
Cattle ranchers have strongly opposed the expanded reintroduction area. They say that the wolves often prey on livestock and that the federal government is slow to pay compensation to ranchers for livestock grazing on public lands that are killed by the reintroduced wolf packs.
Many hunters also oppose reintroduction of the wolves, for fear they’ll sharply reduce the number of deer and elk and so lower their hunting success rate. Wolves also make deer and elk considerably more wary and less likely to cluster around riparian areas and other places where they’re easier to find.
Studies of the reintroduction of Gray Wolves in Yellowstone National Park did document a big reduction in the number of elk and deer. However, the introduction of the wolves also dramatically changed the behavior of the elk and deer, which no longer lingered along streams and in valleys.
As a result of the change in the behavior of the deer and elk, streamside vegetation grew much more lush. This allowed for a comeback in the beaver population, which in turn benefited a host of other species and dramatically changed the dynamics of the stream flow. The return of the wolves also provided a boon to the animals that fed on the remains of their kills, like bears, eagles, foxes and others.
The USFWS extended the comment period on plans to expand the reintroduction area and is now considering its options.
Critics urged the USFWS to either keep the wolves limited to the current Blue Ridge Recovery Area, divided between Arizona and New Mexico — or to abandon the program entirely.
Even if the reintroduction effort continues, critics said they want to make sure that the USFWS continues to classify the wolves as an “experimental, non-essential” population. Such a designation leaves the USFWS free to give ranchers and others permission to kill wolves that attack livestock or pose a threat to people or pets.
On the other hand, advocates pointed to public opinion polls showing strong public support for wolf reintroduction in Arizona and touted the potential benefits of ecotourism. They insisted that wolves have killed a relatively small number of cows in the reintroduction area.
As it turns out, the USFWS has also agreed to do a new set of studies on its earlier decision to delist the Gray Wolf nationally, which had the effect of turning over management of wolf populations to the states where they roam. A review of the science behind the congressionally-ordered delisting of the Gray Wolves conducted by the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis at the University of California, Santa Barbara raised questions about the science behind the delisting decision. The USFWS agreed to redo some of the baseline studies.
In the meantime, several states where the wolves have been reintroduced have adopted aggressive hunting programs to limit their numbers.
Environmental groups have also filed actions to force the USFWS to adopt a better researched reintroduction and management plan for the Mexican Gray Wolf, a subspecies that remained on the endangered species list even after the Gray Wolf was removed. Those actions have challenged the idea that the target 100-wolf population could survive long term. They cite other estimates suggesting that the wolves would not be safe from extinction without a population in the Southwest of at least 750.
The bills sponsored by Sen. Crandell and others would put the state in direct opposition to the federal efforts to protect the Mexican Gray Wolf from extinction.
SB 1211 would expand the list of people who could kill nuisance wolves. Federal officials have declined to comment on the bill, but have said that no matter what law the state adopts people who illegally shoot or trap wolves could still be prosecuted under federal law. Backers of the bill later amended it to require coordination between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Arizona Game and Fish Department before shooting or trapping problem wolves. The bill still extends the authority to kill problem wolves from private to public lands, a potential conflict with federal law. The bill would also set a cap of 100 wolves in the wild, another potential conflict with federal law.