The ranch has provided pen space for wolves being released into, or temporarily removed from, the wild by the federal government ever since the program to reintroduce the endangered Mexican wolf began in 1998.
The commission denied Turner’s permit renewal request on Thursday, a decision that surprised the Turner team and is being viewed by some as a move by the governor-appointed commission to curb reintroduction of the endangered Mexican gray wolf in New Mexico.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the wolf reintroduction program, said in a statement that the Turner ranch has been “an excellent partner in the recovery of Mexican wolves” and said it is “disappointed” in the commission’s decision.
Calls to the Department of Game and Fish on Friday seeking additional comment on why the permit was denied were not returned.
The program has faced stiff opposition from cattle ranchers who see the wolves as a threat to their livestock and livelihood. Turner’s ranch is a different animal, however.
One of several sprawling Western ranches owned by the media mogul, Turner raises bison, and also maintains the land as a habitat for endangered and threatened species, and for ecotourism. The more than 156,000-acre Ladder Ranch is located in Sierra County and includes pine forest in the foothills of the Gila National Forest, the site of the wolf reintroduction program.
“I hold the authority of the Game Commission in high regard,” said Mike Phillips, director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund. “They made a curious decision to say no to a long-standing program with no problems. I wish they had acted differently.”
The Commission “had no problems with the way the ranch has been run for 17 years,” he said. “They are opposed to the Mexican wolf recovery program as currently constituted.”
Phillips spoke at Thursday’s commission meeting – the first time the Turner team has had to request a permit of the seven-member commission. Previously, the ranch’s permit had been renewed by the Game and Fish department director.
That changed last year when, in November, the commission established a new, specific rule requiring commission approval for any mammalian carnivore “held, possessed or released on private property for the purpose of recovery, re-introduction, conditioning, establishment or reestablishing in New Mexico,” according to the meeting minutes.
Public comment at that meeting centered almost exclusively on how the rule would impact the Mexican gray wolf recovery program.
There were 109 Mexican gray wolves in the wild at last count, according to the 2014 census by FWS.
The population is both fragile and highly managed. The FWS frequently traps wolves that pose problems for ranchers, pulls them from the wild temporarily and keeps them in large pens at the Turner ranch or at Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. The pens are also used as way stations for wolves bred in captivity that are poised to be released into the wild for the first time.
“They took out of play a good number of pens that stand as an active place to address problems in the field,” including depredation of livestock, Phillips said. “Five pens are now sitting idle in a federally approved recovery program that is characterized by a lack of cage space.”
In its statement, the FWS said that “partnerships between private land owners and federal agencies are essential to wildlife management and endangered species recovery,” and the commission’s decision “may hamstring species recovery.”
“It reduces the FWS managerial flexibility,” said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation group. “The statement is ‘we’re against Mexican wolf recovery and we’re going to set up obstacles.’ ”