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Ranch Hand Reported to Bait Endangered Wolf

By Rene Romo
Journal Southern Bureau
    LAS CRUCES— The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is looking into a report that a Catron County ranch hand "baited" endangered Mexican gray wolves into attacking and killing a pregnant cow that was about to calve last June.
    The June 23 cow-kill on the Adobe-Slash Ranch in the Gila National Forest triggered a key provision of the federal government's Mexican wolf recovery program: a rule that requires the removal of a wolf from the wild if it is found to have killed livestock three times in one year.
    After the June 23 livestock kill, federal officials ordered the Durango Pack alpha female, with three strikes against her, shot and killed. She was fatally shot on July 5.
    A baiting incident is described in an article for the High Country News published on the magazine's Web site Thursday. The article was quickly disputed by the ranch hand and a representative of Gila country cattle growers.
    The article, written by contributing editor John Dougherty, says Adobe-Slash Ranch hand Mike Miller described "how he deliberately sacrificed a cow in order to have a wolf removed from the wild."
    The High Country News article reported that Miller "branded cattle less than a half-mile from the wolves' den, the enticing aroma of seared flesh surely reaching the pack's super-sensitive nostrils."
    The article quoted Miller as saying: "We would sacrifice a calf to get a third strike."
    Reached by phone at the ranch Thursday evening, Miller disputed the story's account and said he did not try to bait the Durango pack alpha female into a cattle-kill that would require her removal.
    "He (Dougherty) should be writing children's books," Miller said. "He made that all up, that whole story. I sat there and laughed at it. ... There ain't nothing about that whole story that has any truth to it."
    Miller said he had not been contacted by Fish and Wildlife Service law enforcement investigators about the account.
    High Country News editor Jonathan Thompson said in a telephone interview Thursday night, "We do stand by our story."
    Laura Schneberger, president of the Gila Livestock Growers Association, called the High Country News article a "slash piece" and said the claim that Miller baited a wolf with a calving cow is "just the most bizarre stretch of imagination."
    Schneberger said Miller and his wife are "sweet people" and good caretakers of livestock.
    "They would never do such a thing. That would be so abusive. It's beyond my scope of imagination," she said.
    Representatives of environmental organizations said they were outraged by the account and called for punishment.
    Four Arizona advocates, including representatives of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, and the Silver City-based advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity called for suspension of grazing leases for the Adobe-Slash Ranch by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service.
    Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity said Miller's conduct, if true, would be "illegal and unethical."
    Intentionally attracting wolves to a location is prohibited by federal law, said Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Jose Viramontes.
    "Since protocols require that we remove wolves after three livestock kills, it's extremely important that those kills not be set up or have any human influence," Viramontes said.
    Viramontes said the High Country News article's claim could not be presumed to be factual: "We need to follow up on our own ... to see if that quote was made, and in what context it was made."
    The Durango pack had been the focus of intense attention in Catron County since its release in late April.
    Catron County commissioners, after the pack's release, pressed federal officials to remove the alpha female, AF924, because she had killed livestock twice before and, they argued, was a public safety threat.
    Catron County officials sought to trap the wolf, under a local ordinance, until federal agents warned a county employee to stop.
    The Durango pack case in part prompted Gov. Bill Richardson to call for the suspension of the rule requiring wolves to be removed from the wild if they prey on livestock three times in a year.
    After the killing of the Durango pack alpha female, the Catron County commission warned the Fish and Wildlife Service that it planned to trap the Durango pack male for repeatedly venturing near the Miller residence.
    The pack, including the male, a female and a pup, has disappeared since then, though two of the wolves were radio-collared.