Arizona Republic Opinion Piece on Wolves

Let wolves prosper

Dec. 17, 2007 12:00 AM

This is about wolves, not cows. Somebody tell the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The effort to reintroduce endangered Mexican gray wolves in Arizona and New Mexico was carefully crafted to address the concerns of ranchers who use the public lands. This was a fair approach.

But it is not fair anymore.

Trying to satisfy ranchers – particularly those in New Mexico – created a deadly bias against wolves that threatens the success of a program the public supports.

Much of the wolf-reintroduction plan is working. The wolves are breeding in the wild and taking down elk and deer, their preferred prey. But their numbers are not increasing as expected.

The objective in 1998, when the program began, was to establish a population of 100 wolves in the wild by the end of 2006. But only 59 wolves were on the ground last year.

Cows are the reason.

Nearly 70 wolves have been removed from the wild, have died as a result of recapture or were purposely killed by the agency charged with protecting them. Nineteen were lost to the program just this year.

The majority of those removals, whether lethal or not, happened because the wolves preyed on cattle, according to research by wildlife biologist David Parsons, who led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Mexican wolf recovery plan from 1990 to 1999. He currently tracks the program for the Rewilding Institute.

It may sound fair to remove cattle-killing wolves.

But it’s not.

For one thing, ranchers don’t lose money. Defenders of Wildlife runs a program to compensate them for any cows killed by wolves.

For another thing, ranchers can do a lot to prevent depredation.

Research by wildlife biologists shows that many wolves become conditioned to like beef as a result of eating dead cows. Ranchers should remove dead cattle from the wolf recovery area or treat the carcasses with lime to make them inedible.

They are not required to do either of these things. They should be.

Since the program began, wolves have been limited to the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area. If wolves attempt to establish a pack outside those boundaries, they are captured and relocated. This happens even if the land is suitable and the animals have caused no problems. Capture and re-release can result in injury, and it disrupts the natural dispersion that should occur as wolf populations grow.

Mexican wolves in the program are considered to be a “non-essential, experimental” population. This allows the Fish and Wildlife Service to write rules that override the usual protections that endangered species enjoy. It makes wolves easier to kill. Ranchers wanted it that way.

It’s one more example of how the larger public interest in restoring this top predator to the food chain has been sublimated to the narrow wishes of a special interest group. Ranchers pay grazing fees to use public lands. That doesn’t buy exclusive rights.

Wolves were brought to the edge of extinction long ago through federally funded programs that benefited ranchers. Times have changed. The value of predators to the overall health of the ecosystem is well understood. People care about restoring wolves to the wild for scientific, aesthetic, spiritual and emotional reasons. Ranchers can choose to be part of that effort or they can get out of the way. They should not be allowed to undermine it.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service attitude toward wolf recovery needs to reflect the public’s desire to restore these predators to the wild lands. This is your chance to say so.

The feds are taking public comment on the wolf program through Dec. 31.

Send comments to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Attn: Wolf Program, New Mexico Ecological Service Field Office, 2105 Osuna NE, Albuquerque, NM, 87113. You can fax to (505) 346-2542 or e-mail to R2FWE_AL@fws.gov.

For more information on the public comment process, go to www.mexicanwolfeis.org.

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