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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is required to develop a new Mexican gray wolf management plan within two years, and nearly 80 conservation groups and scientists signed off on a letter Wednesday asking the agency to adopt “a science-based and humane” approach to managing the endangered animal.
Environmental groups argue the agency is not doing enough to increase wolf populations in the wild. But many ranchers in New Mexico say the wolf population is out of control and devastating their livestock numbers.
Laura Schneberger, who runs a cow-calf ranch near the Gila National Forest, said wolves have killed 27 of her animals this year.
“We have a wolf pack on our land right now, and they’ve taken half of our cow crop, mostly calves, this year,” she said. “It’s been devastating, and it’s the worst year since the wolf program started. Wolves have just mowed through livestock.”
Last March, a federal judge in Arizona ordered Fish and Wildlife to develop a new wolf management plan by May 2021.
“This could be a turning point for the Mexican wolf,” said Michael Robinson, advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups asking for a new strategy. “We’re asking the agency to look at the science and change course.”
Fish and Wildlife reported that at the end of 2018, there were about 131 Mexican wolves in the wild, with 67 in New Mexico and 64 in Arizona. That represented a 12% increase from 117 wolves at the end of 2017.
The current U.S. recovery plan has a goal of 320 wolves in the wild.
John Oakleaf, Fish and Wildlife field projects coordinator, said the agency uses cross-fostering to release wolves into the wild.
“We place young pups that are less than 10 days old into dens that also have pups that age, and the pack raises them as their own,” he said. “That way we’re not placing a new pack in an area that wolves wouldn’t otherwise be in.”
Last year, the agency cross-fostered 12 pups that were born in captivity.
Oakleaf said ranchers, Fish and Wildlife, and environmental groups should all have the same goal: to increase wolf recovery and minimize impacts to humans and livestock.
“Folks want wolf recovery to be what it was in other areas, and I don’t think that’s a realistic expectation in the Southwest,” he said. “But we started this program (in 1998) with seven animals in captivity. Now we have 250 in captivity and more than 100 in the wild. That’s a tremendous success in staving off extinction for a population.”
Environmental groups want the agency to release wolves as pairs or families and increase focus on genetic diversity. Robinson said last year’s increases were “heartening,” but that the recovery numbers through the years have been uneven.
Wednesday’s letter stated that the wolf should be designated as an experimental-essential population instead of non-essential under the Endangered Species Act. That would require more scrutiny for grazing permits in the recovery area.
The groups are asking for wolves not to be captured or killed for threatening livestock on land where there were carcasses or where the landowner wasn’t present.
But Anita Hand, a cattle rancher near Datil and a Catron County commissioner, said, “Hiring people to ride every pasture to scare away wolves is expensive. Not removing problem wolves is unacceptable. A wolf will keep going after cattle.”
There were 106 confirmed and seven probable wolf depredation incidents in New Mexico from Jan. 1 to Aug. 31 of this year, according to Fish and Wildlife reports. Most of those incidents occurred in Catron County.
Those numbers have spiked since 2018, when there were 56 confirmed wolf depredations in New Mexico from Jan. 1 to Aug. 31.
Hand’s ranch hasn’t had any wolf killings yet. But Catron County has its own investigator to keep track of rising livestock deaths from wolf attacks.
“The wolf recovery program has failed and been flawed from the beginning,” Hand said. “Unless your business or your culture is agriculture, it’s hard to understand the significance of taking that away for the sake of an apex predator. We do not raise cattle to feed wolves.”
Ranchers and Fish and Wildlife employ several methods to prevent wolf predation on livestock. They dispose of carcasses that attract wolves, build fences, rotate where livestock graze and where cows calve, and patrol on horseback to scare wolves away.
The letter proposes revoking grazing permits from anyone found guilty of killing or injuring a Mexican wolf. It also requests that agencies remove public access to real-time GPS data from wolf collars.
Robinson said livestock conflicts that result in wild wolf captures or killings are preventable.
“We need to focus on prevention rather than scapegoating wolves after the fact,” he said. “A patchwork approach does not work.”
Journal staff writer Scott Turner contributed to this report.
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