LUNA — One branch of the federal government, the Agriculture Department’s Wildlife Services, set traps in the northern edge of the Gila National Forest last week in a frustrating, monthlong effort to capture the elusive alpha female of the Fox Mountain wolf pack, blamed for a string of recent livestock kills.
Meanwhile, officials in another agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, fretted over the difficult decision to impound the wolf, one of an official count of 58 in New Mexico and Arizona.
The tug of war over what to do with the Fox Mountain wolf has illustrated again the deep divide that has plagued the recovery of the endangered Mexican gray wolf.
On one hand, conservationists want a native predator that was nearly hunted to extinction restored to the landscape under the Endangered Species Act; on the other, critics, dominated by the livestock industry, argue the lobos are a menace that take a bite out of their pocketbooks by killing cows and other livestock.
Now, the Fish and Wildlife Service appears poised to endorse a new approach, dubbed coexistence, aimed at creating more tolerance for lobos in the ranching community.
Details won’t be released until next month at the earliest. However, according to a broad outline provided by people familiar with the plan, it would do this: Rather than compensate ranchers for confirmed wolf kills of livestock, the program would pay ranchers and those who own property in wolf country, based on a formula that would take into account a number of factors, such as the proximity of a wolf pack, the number of livestock exposed to the threat of wolves, a ranchers’ willingness to take steps to reduce wolf-livestock conflicts and the growth of the wild wolf population.
The idea of shifting to a new way of compensating ranchers in wolf country is, in part, a recognition that ranchers sustain losses for which they are not compensated, for instance, cattle that disappear or stressed cattle, said Craig Miller, Southwestern representative of Defenders of Wildlife and a member of the Mexican Wolf Interdiction Fund Stakeholders Council. The Council makes recommendations on how much to pay ranchers for livestock killed by wolves, with payments from a privately managed fund financed by Defenders and the federal government.
A baseline payment, of a still undetermined amount, would recognize that “there are costs of living in the presence of wolves,” Miller said. “The program is trying to get away from postmortem compensation. That begins with dead livestock and ends with dead wolves.”
As Miller envisions it, Arizona-based Defenders of Wildlife would continue, as it does now, to provide funds to ranchers for measures aimed at avoiding wolf-livestock conflicts, such as hiring range riders to guard herds, moving cattle to pastures away from wolf dens, or the purchase of hay. According to Miller, ranchers could be paid to take steps to reduce conflicts with wolves, and then be rewarded when those measures result in the growth of the wolf population.
“It’s trying to get cooperation on both sides,” said Sherry Barrett, wolf recovery program coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service. “There’s a lot of emotion around wolves, both pro and con. … So we are trying to find something that reduces some of this conflict.”
A key part of the plan — securing a big enough pot of money to pay ranchers an amount that would allay concerns about cattle losses — has yet to be accomplished. Money in the existing Interdiction Fund managed by a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group can only be used to pay ranchers for livestock losses.
To succeed, the plan would have to be embraced by the livestock industry, and several ranchers in Arizona and New Mexico said this week that they knew little or nothing about it. Laura Schneberger, president of the Gila Livestock Growers Association, said she doubted such a program would work for small ranchers who are less able to endure wolf depredations.
In the case of the Fox Mountain packs’ cattle depredations, ranchers called for wolf removals, while hundreds of wolf supporters pushed back against the initial kill order issued Aug. 8. Many wolf advocates celebrated when the kill order was rescinded two days later, after permanent housing for the wolf was secured in an Arizona sanctuary, while others maintained that the wolf should be allowed to remain free.
Before a few wolves were reintroduced to the wild in 1998, federal officials projected there would be about 100 wolves in the forests of southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona by the end of 2006. As of January, the official population count was 58.
Illegal poaching and the removal of wolves in earlier years for cattle depredations have been major factors in keeping down the number of wild-roaming lobos.
The desire to respond to rancher concerns was, in no small measure, what motivated Fish and Wildlife to exercise the discretion it has to manage, or remove, a “problem” wolf that repeatedly preys on livestock, Barrett acknowledged.
Whether a new approach to compensating ranchers for living with wolves is enough to bridge old divides is far from certain. Just in the past week, an online petition was launched that calls for blocking new releases of wolves and, eventually, the removal of wolves from the Southwest.
“I suspect we’ll get backlash from all sides,” Barrett said. “I’ve never seen a plan that didn’t get backlash, but what we are doing is trying to find a middle ground.”
Meanwhile, one freedom-loving lobo continues trying to steer clear of traps.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Rene Romo in Las Cruces at email@example.com or 575-526-4462. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.