The Journal Editorial Board wrote on Dec. 28 that the final Mexican wolf plan is based on compromise and reason, noting that the New Mexico Game Commission “approved” the plan, and that while wolf recovery is an important and worthy goal, “people matter,” too – implying that the people who matter are the people who oppose wolf recovery, although the Journal correctly notes later that wolf recovery has widespread public support, even in wolf territory.
Of course, people matter. Local politics is important. Compromise should occur wherever possible. But when we talk about the Endangered Species Act, especially when it involves predators in the West, we’re talking about values, federalism, science and long-entrenched feelings about western land management.
Wolf recovery is a federal program, administered on federal land owned by all Americans and paid for with federal dollars, i.e. your taxes. Cows are generally on federal land, too, as ranchers lease land from the U.S. Forest Service. And so it becomes a tussle over whose use of federal land “wins.” It’s true that wolves occasionally take cattle in the Gila. Not nearly as many as some people would like us to believe – USDA statistics indicate that only 237 of the 57,000 premature cattle deaths in New Mexico a year are attributable to wolves. But it’s also true that wolf deaths are the only type of cattle mortality for which compensation is available.
It’s great that the state Game Commission is now saying it supports the recovery plan, but the state has no real authority over wolf recovery because it’s entirely under federal jurisdiction. The Journal also forgot to mention that the commission pulled out of being a cooperating partner in the wolf recovery program as soon as Gov. Susana Martinez took office because she campaigned against wolf recovery. As the commission is completely appointed by the sitting governor at will, it has followed her lead in thwarting wolf recovery in every way it can think of, from removing itself from the program to trying to stop private landowners from helping with the breeding program to requiring the Fish and Wildlife Service to seek permits to release wolves. The agency has done this, and is perhaps regretting it, in order to appease the commission, and yet those permit requests have been continuously denied until the creation of this current plan, which, as luck would have it, gives most authority over wolf releases to the state Game Commission. It’s no shock that the commission likes it better than what was in place before.
This recovery plan was partially a compromise and it’s better than what we had. But it certainly was other things, too. An arm wrestle over state and federal jurisdiction, a power grab, a contest over western land management. And it certainly wasn’t based on science, which indicates recovery will happen only when there are more than twice the number of wolves called for in the final recovery plan.
Wolves are complicated. Western land management is complicated. It’s true that recovery will not happen without local buy-in. But that buy-in must be based in good faith and must listen to science. If the commission is serious about its support of this plan, it should ask the governor to re-join the program as a cooperator and should abstain from trying to limit or stop wolf releases into the state. It should also listen to the overwhelming majority of New Mexicans who want wolves to be recovered in the Southwest.