WASHINGTON, Sept. 16, 2015 - Skirmishes are breaking out in Arizona, New Mexico and Washington, D.C., over the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) decision to expand the experimental population boundaries for the endangered Mexican gray wolf and the agency’s more recent push to release more wolves into the wild.
In January, FWS listed the Mexican gray wolf as endangered under the Endangered Species Act and finalized a rule expanding the species’ experimental population area by 400 percent. Now the southern boundary of the Mexican Wolf Experimental Population Area (MWEPA) – an area in which the wolves are allowed to roam, but not leave – extends to the Mexican border in both Arizona and New Mexico.
FWS said extending the area’s borders allows the U.S. to manage the wolves reintroduced by the Mexican government that cross into southern Arizona and New Mexico. Increasing the size of the area also allows for more “cross-fostering” – the practice of substituting captive-raised pups for wild ones to prevent inbreeding-- the service argued.
To placate ranchers and residents concerned about livestock and pet predation, FWS’ rule also allowed landowners to kill “lobos,” as the wolves are known, if they attack domestic animals on non-federal land. But states are still digging in their heels and blocking the introduction of new wolves.
In June, the director of the New Mexico Game and Fish Department, Alexa Sandoval, denied two FWS permit applications that sought to release a maximum of 10 captive lobos in the Gila National Forest.
FWS fired back with a request to the state’s game commission to reverse Sandoval’s decision, which it called “arbitrary” and “capricious.” The commission, appointed by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, delayed the vote on FWS’s appeal until Sept. 29.
The federal species recovery plan – finalized in 1982 in cooperation with the Mexican government – also came under fire in June when Arizona’s attorney general and the state’s Game and Fish Department sued FWS, claiming the plan hadn’t been updated as required by law.
FWS and its state and private partners have managed to grow the lobo population to at least 109 individuals over the course of 16 years without an updated recovery plan – FSA says one will be finalized by December 2017 – but they won’t stop there. A minimum of 300 to 325 wolves is necessary for a self-sustaining population, so more wolf introductions are crucial, says FWS.
Bad blood over wild lobos runs deep in the Southwest, as many still believe the predators pose a significant threat to big game species, including elk, which constitute much of the wolves’ diet, and to cattle and other livestock. However, FWS data suggests livestock losses due to predation aren’t as significant as some would claim. Between 1998 – when the service started reintroducing wolves into the Gila and Apache National Forests – and 2014, there were 266 confirmed killings of livestock and 79 confirmed instances of livestock injury due to lobos.
Losses to predation have been variable each year, but did not increase in proportion to wolf population growth as one might expect. Jeff Humphrey, a public affairs specialist at FWS, told Agri-Pulse that’s because the first wolves to be introduced were raised in captivity, making them less adverse to interactions with people, pets and cattle. The wolves on the landscape now were largely born and raised in the wild, which means they are less likely to become habituated to humans, he said.
Some lawmakers on Capitol Hill still think lobos pose a threat to cattle operations. They include Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., who introduced the Mexican Wolf Transparency and Accountability Act (HR 2910) in June. The bill would delist the wolf and terminate the experimental population program for the species. Several farming and ranching groups, including the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the New Mexico and Arizona Farm Bureaus and the Public Lands Council, have endorsed the bill.
In a statement, Gosar called the lobo experimental population program “unlawful” and effectively “flawed,” and said it posed “a serious threat” to cattle and local economies.
The bill’s co-sponsor, Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., said the power to manage protected species should be in state hands and argued FWS wrongfully expanded the population area for the wolf “without first securing the necessary funding to ensure predator incidents can be prevented.”
The Mexican Wolf/Livestock Council, formally known as the Coexistence Council, is one entity that is helping Arizona and New Mexico ranchers prevent such predator incidents, said Humphrey. The Council provides “payments for wolf presence” – that is, compensation for the preventative methods they use to deter cattle/wolf interactions or for livestock losses they cannot confirm – as well as indemnity payments for livestock losses and injury due to lobos.
In 2014, the Council provided $85,000 in payments to 26 livestock operators for wolf presence, $60,000 for depredation compensation – reimbursement rates depend on auction value of the livestock affected – and $130,000 for conflict avoidance measures. Most of the organization’s funding comes through FWS’s Federal Livestock Demonstration Program and private entities.
Cattle ranchers can also access indemnity funding through the USDA Farm Service Agency’s Livestock Indemnity Program, which was revised in the 2014 farm bill to provide compensation to ranchers for documented and undocumented wolf predation.
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