Santa Fe Reporter, July 15, 2009
Who's Afraid of... The big bad wolf? When it comes to New Mexico’s recovery program, the real fear is the wolves won’t be saved
By Laura Paskus
By all rights, he should have been executed; it was his fourth killing within a year.
But in June, federal officials gave a male wolf a rare reprieve.
In Catron County’s Canyon del Buey—outside the town of Aragon—Alpha Male 1114, a Mexican gray wolf, had killed and eaten a calf. His mate, Alpha Female 903, was likely involved as well.
Under the Mexican gray wolf reintroduction project’s current rules—which include a three-strikes-you’re-out rule for cattle-killing lobos—such a transgression is punishable by death.
“That particular animal and that particular pack has represented a really tough set of decisions because we recognize our responsibility to help ranchers if wolves are affecting their landscape,” Bud Fazio, Mexican gray wolf recovery coordinator at the US Fish and Wildlife Service, says. “Yet we also recognize our responsibility to restore wolves to the landscape and give them every chance possible to make it out there.”
In this particular case, Fazio says, managers allowed the wolf to remain in the wild where he could continue helping his mate raise their pups—“and therefore restore more wolves to the wild before any future decisions to remove him.”
Alpha Male 1114’s fate isn’t set in stone—if he kills any more livestock, he will be captured and moved to captivity or else shot and killed. And not all wolves are lucky enough to be left in the wild—even though the federal government has spent more than a decade trying to reintroduce lobos to the southwestern United States.
According to the most recent official tally, there are currently 52 documented wolves in the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area, a legally defined 4 million-acre area of national forest that straddles New Mexico and Arizona—and out of which wolves are not allowed to stray. A total of 10 packs have been documented: five in Arizona on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests and the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, and five on New Mexico’s Gila National Forest. Returning predators to the landscape off of which they’d been hunted, clubbed and poisoned was bound to be complicated. But to many, the current numbers illustrate the program’s failure.
Wolf reintroductions have occurred across the US, including in Idaho and Montana, as well as the Great Lakes region and the southeastern US. Those other programs are not without problems and complications. For example, the successful recovery in Idaho and Montana—which will lead to the animals being removed from protection under the endangered species list—has spurred plans by both states to allow hunting of the wolves. But the Mexican gray wolf reintroduction in the Southwest is the one most clearly struggling.
“The wolves will go extinct,” Michael Robinson, conservation advocate with the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, says. “If the program is continued exactly the way it is now, these wolves will go extinct.”
Thanks to trigger-happy hunters and aggressive government bounty programs, by the mid-19th century, wolves had completely disappeared from the Southwest.
With only seven known alive in the wild, biologists realized the animal would soon be extinct—a problem that not only affected the species itself, but the ecosystem it inhabited.
In 1976, the federal government listed the Mexican gray wolf for protection under the nation’s Endangered Species Act. The following year, biologists began capturing wolves in Mexico—they found five—and began establishing a captive breeding program.
The Fish and Wildlife Service convened a recovery team and, in 1982, released a long-term recovery plan. Studies were completed, 18,000 public comments analyzed, lawsuits filed—on behalf of both environmentalists who supported the animal’s recovery as well as the livestock industry, which still opposes it today—and the agency sponsored hundreds of hours of meetings, hearings and public meetings.
And on March 29, 1998, with documents in place and decisions signed, biologists released the first wolves from pens in the Apache National Forest in Arizona.
“Our job was to go out late in the afternoon—that is, when it was still light—and open up the gates,” Fish and Wildlife Service’s former wolf coordinator Dave Parsons says. Managers had learned from the Yellowstone Park wolf reintroduction program in Montana that gates needed to be installed at the back of the pen, Parsons says; the Yellowstone animals didn’t want to go through the same gates they associated with their caretakers.
“So we went and opened those gates and attached motion-sensor video cameras to trees nearby to try and capture on film the event,” he says. They then retreated to their tents, waiting for dawn to break to see what the wolves had done.
“I can remember heading out that next morning and finding wolf tracks in the snow outside the pen for the first time in oh, probably 50 years in that country,” he says, “And then we got out our radio tracking gear and set about to see just where they’d gone.”
Recalling that morning, Parsons speaks of his hope for the program, which he headed up for nine years. Seven of his years there involved planning—paperwork, public meetings, environmental studies—necessary steps toward opening those gates and knowing wolves were retuning to the landscape.
In its 1982 recovery plan, the Fish and Wildlife Service had called for establishing a minimum population of 100 animals within their historic range; that number was the threshold by which to measure the effort’s success. In a separate document, it anticipated the wolf population would reach that number in 2006.
The program went “pretty well” until 2003, Parsons, who now works for the nonprofit Rewilding Institute, says. “The wild populations tracked our predictions almost—remarkably precisely—up to the end of 2003, where we predicted there would be 55 wolves, and the annual count was 55 wolves,” he says.
But then in 2003, the population started to decline. By the end of 2008, there were only 52 wolves estimated in the wild. “There’s been no real progress toward meeting the reintroduction objective of at least 100 wolves for the past five-plus years,” he says. “That’s pretty frustrating.”
So what exactly occurred in 2003?
That was the year the Fish and Wildlife Service signed an agreement establishing a new model for making management decisions, administered by the Adaptive Management Oversight Committee. In addition to the Fish and Wildlife Service, the committee consists of state, local and tribal partners. AMOC has been roundly criticized by activists—many of whom refer to it by its acronym, pronouncing it “amok,” rather than the preferred “A-mock.”
“Under AMOC, [the Fish and Wildlife Service] has managed to give away their statutory responsibility to recover endangered species to a consortium of agencies,” advocate Michael Robinson, who has been tracking the wolf program since the 1990s, says. One of AMOC’s management practices, Standard Operating Procedure 13, declares that any wolf known or suspected to have killed livestock on three occasions during a one-year period will be removed.
These “removals” can be lethal or non-lethal means of taking individual wolves out of the wild—and they are currently the leading cause of wolf removals from the wild. In fact, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s coordinator Fazio, agency personnel have removed a total of 70 wolves from the wild.
For comparison’s sake, 30 have been illegally shot (including five last year), 12 have been struck by vehicles, 10 have died from natural causes and nine from unknown causes.
In other words, of the various ways they might leave the wild, more wolves are being removed—or killed—by the very people charged with reintroducing the animals to the wild.
From his home in Pinos Altos—just north of Silver City, the tiny town is nestled at the edge of the Gila National Forest and sits about a half-mile from the wolf recovery area—Robinson has spent more than a decade advocating for the recovery of Mexican gray wolves in New Mexico.
“Most of the wolves that they release or that are born in the wild—about three-quarters of them at this point were born in the wild—most of them will end up dead or in captivity at human hands,” Robinson says. “Very few of them will live any length of time in the wild.”
The government has turned what was supposed to be a recovery program into a control program, he says. “That’s what we have here: an attempt by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the other agencies they work with to suppress the wolf population, confine the wolf population and ultimately to destroy it.”
One of Robinson’s biggest concerns about wolf recovery right now has to do with cattle carcasses left on public lands by the ranchers who graze their livestock on the national forests.
“If you go up to Beaverhead now, I could take you to two dead cows that are out there that were not killed by wolves—and those are just the two that are visible from the road,” Robinson says, referring to a portion of the recovery area at the north end of a road dividing the Gila and Aldo Leopold Wilderness. “There’s God knows how many tens of thousands of cows there, and most of them are on very, very rough dirt roads that take a long time to get to and they’re clustered around little hidden stock tanks. Who knows how many dead cows are out there now?”
In other areas where wolf recovery efforts are underway, ranchers must clean up their dead livestock carcasses; if they don’t, Robinson says, managers are not required to control wolves from livestock attacks in the vicinity of those attractants. Within the Mexican gray wolf recovery area, managers recommend that ranchers bury carcasses or else render carcasses inedible—using such methods as lime or explosives. But even the Forest Service, which controls the permits ranchers must obtain to graze livestock on public lands, cannot force ranchers to clean up their dead cows, even if they might attract predators, such as wolves.
“It’s perfectly legal to leave a dead cow right by cattle that are so sickly that in some cases they can’t even get up,” Robinson says. He believes there is evidence such scavenging changes a wolf’s eating habits.
Darting back and forth between his office and living room, Robinson shuffles through piles of paperwork—the result of filing Freedom of Information Act requests to get a hold of internal agency correspondence and other documents. Using stakeholder meeting notes and correspondence, he traces the story of wolves in the Campbell Blue Pack who met untimely deaths.
In 1998, the alpha pair and their pup were in Arizona; ignoring a corral full of cows and calves, they moved on to successfully hunt elk.
Later, the male and his new mate left the recovery area and were captured for relocation.
Trying to climb out of a chain-link fence, the female broke her leg in captivity; she was given veterinary care and rereleased in New Mexico. After their release from captivity, the pair split, Robinson says.
Then, in February 2001, the male was spotted in Cottonwood Canyon, feeding on the carcass of a dead bull. According to two agency email messages from that time period, an investigation revealed the bull had not been killed by the wolf; rather, it had likely slipped and fallen on a steep, icy mountainside—“and broken a leg, probably lying there for up to a week before dying.” The bull was in an area that had been closed to grazing since the previous November.
Wildlife Services and Fish and Wildlife Service staff offered to pack out the dead animal, which, according to the email, was “an extremely arduous task…” Staff believed removing the carcass would encourage the wolf to move along out of the area. The rancher refused to allow removal of the carcass—unless the carcass was purchased.
Around the same time, the female wolf was spotted by a rancher near Winston who also had a dead milk cow up the canyon from her house.
Eventually, Robinson says, the two wolves reunited. They began ignoring elk and hunting cattle exclusively. Wary by this point of traps, both were captured by aerial net gun. The male was placed in captivity (and euthanized this spring, as his health had deteriorated). The female was eventually rereleased into the Gila Wilderness; from there, she traveled approximately 40 miles back to the Winston rancher’s grazing allotment on the national forest and began hunting cattle.
As a result, on May 27, 2003, a Fish and Wildlife Service staffer shot and killed F 592, the first of 11 wolves thus far shot dead by the government since the reintroduction program began.
Robinson admits such documentation does not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that scavenging changes a wolf’s eating habits. “But it seems to indicate that these wolves changed their behavior due to their scavenging on livestock carcasses,” he says. “And there are other examples of this—this happens over and over again.”
The New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association has always opposed wolf reintroduction, according to Caren Cowan, its executive director.
“But since the wolves are here, we have tried to work with all the agencies to minimize the impacts, as best we can, on our members,” she says. “With that said, the impacts have been devastating to many members, with loss of livestock, loss of pets, loss of horses, the ability not to even be able to use their yards or private property for fear of having wolves in their yards.”
Families and rural economies are being harmed, she says. “We estimate there have been 1,500 head, minimum, that have been lost,” she says. “But because of the confirmation measures that are required by the government, it’s difficult [to say]—but their numbers don’t match our numbers.”
Currently, the nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife will compensate ranchers whose livestock have been killed by wolves—but Cowan points out that they don’t have an unlimited budget. “We believe if the government is going to turn predators out, then the government should be responsible for all losses.”
Finding a solution for all parties is difficult, Cowan says. “People are not being able to manage their own destiny,” she says, pointing out that ranchers aren’t allowed to shoot wolves the way they can coyotes, mountain lions or bears.
“This is like turning a sexual predator loose in your neighborhood and telling you that you can’t do anything about it,” she says.
With a warm, soothing voice, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s new wolf coordinator, Bud Fazio, seems accustomed to calming tensions. Despite leading a program that has become increasingly wieldy, he doesn’t seem battle-weary.
Of course, he’s only been here since May—he worked the past eight years as coordinator of the red wolf recovery project in the southeastern United States—and has yet to spend much time in the field.
He’s aware of the program’s problems and the many criticisms leveled against it.
“I think one of the biggest challenges is helping people to understand that wolves and people can in fact live together on the landscape,” he says. “With that comes the challenge that we have to take care of people on the landscape, as much as we do wolves—and we are always striving toward working with our partners to do that.”
Currently, the service is trying to establish an interdiction program that would offer ranches incentives to manage cattle differently—specifically, to manage cattle in a way that would allow wolves to exist in the wild. The program might also compensate ranchers for cattle lost to wolves.
The agency also is at work on two documents: a conservation assessment evaluating what has—and has not—worked within the program and an environmental assessment, which is exploring whether the wolf release area might be expanded from a small portion of the recovery area in eastern Arizona to a larger area that includes New Mexico.
The agency also hopes to redefine the term “breeding pair”—a term crucial to how the reintroduction plan is evaluated. The program’s original goal was to have at least 100 individual wolves and 18 breeding pairs. Breeding pairs—different from mated pairs—are currently defined as an alpha male and alpha female who have successfully bred and reared pups through the end of the calendar year.
In 2008—10 years after reintroduction efforts began—there were only two documented breeding pairs. Currently, Fazio believes there are between three and eight packs with pups living in the wild.
Each month, the program team posts monthly progress reports online. Reading these reports, it’s easy to see how intensively these animals are managed—even micro-managed.
In early February, for example, project personnel darted and captured a female wolf approximately 30 miles outside of the recovery zone after being moved into New Mexico in January. She was inspected at a vet clinic in Pinetop, Ariz., then placed within a chain-link-fence pen within the Fox Mountain pack territory “in an attempt to allow the pack to locate it.”
After several days, personnel decided that, “due to [her] uncertain breeding status” a different female wolf from captivity should replace her in the pen—to maximize the mating potential of an alpha male. She was removed from the pen and placed in the Sevilleta Wolf Management Facility near Socorro. The female wolf who replaced her was found dead within eight days. Her death remains under investigation.
It’s not an unusual story.
Even the project’s poster child—Brunhilda, the alpha female of the first wolf pack introduced in the Southwest, whose image graced agency posters and public relations material—met an unfortunate end. In July 2005, biologists captured her, planning to remove her radio collar and vaccinate her four pups. But the wolf overheated during her checkup and died. That was a mistake, obviously—and one team biologists took to heart.
Those biologists, however, aren’t the ones making the big decisions that affect the wolves. That responsibility is left to members of AMOC.
Given that the mandates of some of those member agencies are related to livestock production and animal control rather than endangered species protection, it is fair to say some committee members look less favorably upon the plight of wolves than others.
For its part, the stance of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish has evolved in recent years, in large part because of Gov. Bill Richardson’s stated support for the wolf program.
That evolution—and the agencies’ collaboration on the program—can be considered something of a success, according to Matt Wunder, chief of the department’s Conservation Service’s Division.
“In terms of the population, clearly, I think everybody would say that as far as the numbers go, we would have liked to see the numbers higher than they are at this point,” he says. “Because those numbers have fluctuated in the 40 to 60 range for a number of years now, I think that everybody feels that…we certainly could be farther along than we are this point.”
Most of the division’s time, he says, is spent trying to minimize conflicts between livestock and wolves.
“We recognize that there are impacts, that there are very polarized constituencies out there that are either very pro-wolf or, in some cases, very anti-wolf,” he says. “This is definitely not an easy program, but the department is definitely committed to it.”
This spring, in fact, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish was the only member of AMOC that recommended against removing from the wild or killing Alpha Male 1114, the wolf who had killed four head of cattle within a one-year period.
According to the agency’s recommendation, the rancher in question had rejected efforts to apply “proactive” measures on public lands; additionally, the male’s survival in the wild was linked to that of the pups as well.
The state of wolf recovery is so shaky that removal of this one animal could be detrimental not only to the survival of the San Mateo pack, but to the entire population’s success. As such, his life was spared—for now.
Yet even in the wild—and blessed by the best intentions of program managers—things haven’t gone smoothly for AM 1114, his mate, nor the six pups born to them in April.
Two pups were found dead, Fazio says. The adults abandoned the den, bringing one pup with them. When the female returned to retrieve the remaining pups, she found they had backed themselves into a crevice. Unable to coax them out, she eventually left them behind.
“We did our best to first try to bring the pups out of the crevice, and then we tried to reunite them with their parents,” he says. “When that didn’t work with the first pup, we made the call that it was more important that the remaining pups survive.”
Biologists captured the two pups and brought them to the captive breeding facility in Sevilleta.
“The reason we put all that effort in is they have the kind of genetics we want out there on the landscape,” Fazio says, explaining that to create a viable population, its genetic makeup must be diverse.
Yet, the yips of these pups—like the howls of so many others who were meant to again roam southwestern forests—will be heard only from within captivity.
Copyright Santa Fe Reporter 2009.