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Ranchers at Odds With Wolf Policy

By Rene Romo
Copyright © 2009 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Southern Bureau

          BEAVERHEAD — The question of when, or if, to remove endangered Mexican gray wolves, reintroduced to the wild in 1998 after they were nearly hunted to extinction for killing cattle, has been a source of conflict between ranchers and environmentalists for years.
        Since June, federal officials have taken a new approach to managing the wild wolf population, preferring to leave predators in the wild rather than trapping or shooting them, even after they have repeatedly killed cattle.
        As usual with the hotly debated recovery program, the new approach does not appear to have quieted the controversy.
        "It's a very polarized situation," said Matt Wunder, Conservation Division chief of the New Mexico Game and Fish Department, which recently has taken a lead role in hazing wolves in an effort to deter cattle kills. "There's not too many people in the middle."
        The policy governing when to remove "problem wolves," known as Standard Operating Procedure 13, was issued in April 2005 by the Adaptive Management Oversight Committee, a group composed of representatives of six federal, state and tribal agencies that make management recommendations to the recovery program's lead agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
        Under SOP 13, wolves were to be removed, either trapped or killed, after a determination that they had killed three cattle in a one-year period.
        For years, environmentalists complained that the rigid application of SOP 13 undermined the project's goal of having at least 102 wolves and 18 breeding pairs in the wild by the end of 2006. From 1998 when wolves were first released into southeast Arizona through 2008, 70 wolves were removed from the wild for cattle depredations, including 11 that were killed, according to Fish and Wildlife.
        But since June, the service, citing concerns about the stagnant growth of the wild wolf population, has decided not to enforce the three-strikes rule against wolves in two packs in the Gila National Forest in southwest New Mexico.
        Rather than remove the wolves, Fish and Wildlife authorized hazing efforts to drive the wolves away from herds that graze in the Gila. Hazing can be setting off firecrackers, camping at their rendezvous sites, chasing them on ATVs or putting up fladry lines, strips of material hanging from fences.
        The decisions prompted Laura Schneberger, president of the Gila Livestock Growers Association, to blog: "There is no real three strikes rule anymore."
        Dave Parsons, a biologist with the Albuquerque-based Rewilding Institute and former coordinator of the Mexican wolf recovery program, said the decisions to leave cattle-killing wolves in the wild "certainly reflect a new direction in the program, and that's a direction that puts a higher value on wolves when a decision comes to resolving conflicts between wolves and cattle.
        "We in the conservation community have been pushing that for a long time."
        By the end of 2006, there were 59 wolves in the recovery area in southeast Arizona and southwest New Mexico, 52 in 2007 and 52 by the end of 2008.
        Ranching groups claim the federal government has undercounted the wild wolf population along with the number of cows, horses and sheep killed by wolves. They also complain the federal government has been slow to enforce the three-strikes rule. Project reports say wolves were confirmed as probable or possible causes in the killing of 135 cattle from 2006 through 2008.
        The controversy boiled up in 2007. The Catron County Commission passed an ordinance, later challenged in court, claiming the authority to remove wolves considered habituated to humans.
        In June of that year, the American Society of Mammologists asked Fish and Wildlife to stop predator control until the goal of 100 wolves in the recovery area was reached. In July 2007, after federal agents shot a female wolf in the Beaverhead area for killing cattle, Gov. Bill Richardson publicly called for the suspension of SOP 13.
        Last year, a coalition of environmentalists told the head of the wolf recovery project's oversight committee that SOP 13 was to blame for not reaching wolf population goals, and several organizations filed lawsuits seeking to overturn it.
        Then in a key step in late May 2009, the Adaptive Management Oversight Committee approved a "clarification memo" stating the partner agencies were "both authorized and expected to be flexible in applying SOP 13."
        The memo said that "extenuating circumstances," such as the existence of pups, would be taken into consideration when deciding whether to remove wolves for killing cattle.
        Sierra County manager Janet Porter-Carrejo, who represents the county in discussions with the program's oversight committee, complained, "It's like changing the rules in the middle of the game. It doesn't really work for me."
        In June, Benjamin Tuggle, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service's Southwest region, decided, for the first time, to allow a Mexican gray wolf to remain in the wild though federal officials acknowledged it had killed four cows in the preceding year.
        Tuggle's decision sparing the alpha male cited the "relatively low population" of the Mexican gray wolf population in the recovery area straddling the Arizona-New Mexico border. Tuggle said the survival of four pups fathered by the wolf could depend on the presence of two parents.
        Tuggle has adhered to that stance three times since late August in the case of another pack in the Gila. He first decided to leave the pack's alpha wolves in the wild despite a string of five cattle kills that started July 30. Fish and Wildlife has stuck to its decision to leave the pack, which is raising four pups, as the tally of cow kills rose to eight with more kills under investigation as of Sept. 25.
        Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association, said, "We are extremely disappointed that neither our state or federal wildlife management agencies ... hold the livestock industry in high enough regard to stop this from happening."
        Of Tuggle's recent decisions not to enforce SOP 13, Cowan said, "For whatever reason, the Fish and Wildlife Service is choosing to ignore their own policy."

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