Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Program for Mexican gray wolves to continue

Michael Clancy - The Arizona Republic

Mexican gray wolves, one of the state's key links to its wild roots, will continue to roam in eastern Arizona and western New Mexico, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Tuesday. The decision to continue a wolf reintroduction program was made in spite of opposition from ranchers who succeeded in having a dozen wolves killed in recent months because the wolves attacked their cattle. Continuing the program was also one of the key recommendations in a five-year review of the Mexican Wolf Blue Range Reintroduction Project in Arizona and New Mexico.

Other recommendations that will be considered include:

• Expanding wolves' range, which covers portions of the White Mountain Apache Reservation and the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests in Arizona and the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. No details were provided; the issue will be studied further.

• Allowing the number of wolves to increase naturally, although that will depend on the results of the range study and further scientific review of the program.

• Requiring ranchers to adapt their practices to minimize wolf kills by removing carcasses of dead animals that wolves feed upon and by adjusting calving times so they take place at the same time elk, the wolves' preferred food, are giving birth.

Each of those recommendations would have to undergo study, and some may have to be included in broader planning aimed at wolf survival. Bigger studies about range and the project as a whole also will be carried out, with final results possibly in six years. But for now, the wolves have succeeded in returning to the wild in the eight years since they first were released near Hannagan Meadow in the White Mountains.

"They can maintain themselves in the wild with native prey, they can reproduce and raise litters, and they can find each other and start new packs," said Bill Van Pelt, endangered species coordinator for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. "These things suggest successful reintroduction can occur. The greatest challenge right now is humans."

First placed in 1998

The Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees endangered-species recovery nationwide, decided to continue the reintroduction program by accepting 37 recommendations of a five-agency group that oversees the Mexican wolf reintroduction. The recommendations were the result of a required, but belated, five-year review of the project, which placed its first wolves in the wild in 1998.

Benjamin Tuggle, acting southwest regional director for the service, said the recommendations "will greatly improve the effectiveness of the Mexican wolf program." He spoke at a telephone news conference Tuesday morning.

An estimated 45 to 60 wolves, not counting newborn pups, live on their own in the wild lands along the eastern border of Arizona and the highlands of western New Mexico, said John Morgart, Mexican wolf recovery coordinator for the service.

That is far short of the 100 wild wolves predicted for 2006 when the program started. But the wolves exist under tight restrictions on where they may go, how many may exist, and what they may eat.

Wolf foes speak out

Ranchers and other residents of the wolf recovery area have opposed the program because, they say, wolves pose a threat to their livelihoods, their pets, maybe even their children. Now, wolves may be trapped and relocated or even killed after they kill livestock.

Much of the organized opposition has been in New Mexico, where a ranchers group and an organization that represents counties lost a lawsuit in 2005 aimed at ending the program. Two wolf packs, one in Arizona and one in New Mexico, recently were removed after confirmation that the packs had killed and fed upon cattle. A dozen animals died, including six wild-born pups. Alternatively, conservation groups like Defenders of Wildlife say the wolves would thrive if they had more territory and fewer restrictions.

3 areas covered

The recommendations broadly cover three areas: territory, population and attacks on livestock, or depredation.

No specific expansion was identified, but Eva Sargent of Defenders of Wildlife, which reimburses ranchers for cattle lost to wolves, said her organization would like to see consideration of southeastern Arizona's mountain ranges, known as the Sky Islands, and the Grand Canyon area.

Morgart also said the service would complete a recovery plan for the wolves, as recommended, but that the other steps must be taken first.

Sargent said a recovery plan, aimed at the wolves' permanent survival in the wild, should be completed before target numbers of animals are established. The recommendations say the objective should be to maintain a total of at least 100 wolves, with 125 as a higher level that, Van Pelt said, would trigger discussion about wolf removal. Sargent argued the number is arbitrary and established without scientific review.

Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity called the 125 number a cap on the population that would prevent recovery. Robinson even challenged the possibility of territorial expansion, saying it is a "poison pill" that will "sabotage wolf recovery."

Both boundary changes and a recovery plan would have to go through a comprehensive process of decision-making, public comment, environmental-impact statements and final decisions, Morgart said, similar to the process that led to the reintroduction in the first place.

The group overseeing recovery may proceed, he said, with several recommendations, including development of an incentive program to limit livestock kills and formation of a science and research advisory committee to review the project as a whole.

  • Arizona Republic