Wildlife Disservice

Someone is shooting endangered Mexican gray wolves. The government's flawed reintroduction program helped put them in the crosshairs.

In March, three days before the first Mexican grays were released from their acclimation pens, the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association filed a federal lawsuit seeking to prevent the release. The lawsuit is pending.

The New Mexico Farm Bureau Federation is perhaps the harshest critic of wolf reintroduction.

"There is no reason to reintroduce them," says bureau spokesman Eric Ness. "There are plenty of gray wolves in Alaska."

Ness says the wolf is a tool in environmentalists' plot to close public access to vast areas of national forests.

"This is no more than a land grab and an attempt to lock up the forest," Ness says.

Ness isn't just crying wolf.
Last month, the Tucson-based Southwest Center for Biological Diversity released its own wolf-recovery plan designed to stave off additional shootings. The plan calls for closing little-used roads in the Apache and Gila national forests along with the phasing out of livestock grazing permits on 3.6 million acres of forest land.

Closing roads would be an important step toward the center's goal of restoring the forests to their former grandeur, where grizzly bears, jaguars, cougars and wolves roam, live and die--free from human interference.

Michael Robinson, the center's wolf specialist, says FWS has catered to cattle industry wishes by embracing rules that would allow ranchers to kill wolves that kill cattle on private land, by limiting the size of the recovery area and by refusing to designate critical habitat where the wolves' survival would be a higher priority than extractive land uses.

"There are no limits on public-lands grazing, nor road closures to protect the wolves," Robinson says. "At least some of these wolves were probably shot by someone leaning out of a pickup truck."

The environmental group Defenders of Wildlife spent years working behind the scenes with government wildlife officials and the mountain communities, trying to alleviate concerns about wolf reintroduction.

To reduce worries about cattle depredation, the Washington, D.C.-based organization has established a private fund that will reimburse any rancher that can prove a wolf killed livestock.

"We are not Pollyanna out there saying wolves are not going to kill livestock. They will," says Defenders' director of species conservation Robert M. Ferris. "But we will pay compensation. Will they have a major impact? No. In the 10 years in administering the compensation fund in Montana, we have paid out only $60,000."

Cattle depredation by Mexican gray wolves is projected to be minuscule. FWS estimates that even if 100 wolves can be established in the Apache and Gila national forests, they will take no more than 34 cattle each year. Approximately 82,600 cattle graze in the wolf recovery area.

Defenders of Wildlife also conducts a public education campaign designed to dispel myths that wolves are a serious threat to human safety. No documentation exists of Mexican gray wolf attacks on humans.

"The chances of somebody being attacked by a wolf are so exceedingly low to not even be considered," Ferris says. "More people are killed each year by vending machines when they try to get their change back." Four died last year, he says.

Defenders' financial pledges and education efforts have been largely ineffectual.

Few mountain residents are in any mood to compromise. Taking a hard line against reintroduction has been successful. The program has foundered, with more than half the wolves shot or missing in less than a year.

"Every time we have tried to compromise with that side of aisle, we have been screwed, bruised and blued," says the farm bureau's Ness. "You can't compromise with people you can't trust."

Ferris is willing to extend the olive branch, but acknowledges there is little chance that discussions with wolf foes will be fruitful.

"Clearly, we are on different planets as far as we see this reality," says Ferris.

The shooting began less than a month after the chain-link acclimation pens were opened, freeing 11 wolves in three separate packs.

The smallest pack, the two-member Turkey Creek pack, was located farthest from Alpine--nearly 50 miles south--in a relatively dry juniper forest riven by canyons.

Cows, dogs and humans--the three things biologists wanted the wolves to avoid--were everywhere the wolves turned.

Two days prior to the release, wolf officials notified the U.S. Forest Service that two cows were within one mile of the wolf release site--an area off-limits to the public and ranchers. The wolf team asked the Forest Service to contact the owner to remove the cows.

But the cows remained, and on April 5 one of them had a calf. The Forest Service was again notified, but it took two days before the rancher arrived, and by then, the calf was missing. The calf was later found unharmed. It's uncertain whether the wolves ever encountered the cows, but neither the rancher nor the Forest Service seemed eager to protect the cattle.

A few days later, the Turkey Creek wolves showed up near a group of about 30 lion hunters and their dogs; the encampment had been set up about two miles from the wolves' release pen.

Press accounts report that the hunters left scrap food near the camp and that the scavenging wolves were coming close to humans. One hunter claimed he threw food scraps at the wolves, thinking they might be hungry.

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