Can Southwest Ranchers Find Peace With Wolves in Their Midst?

Can Southwest Ranchers Find Peace With Wolves in Their Midst?

Small New Mexico County Deals With Growing ‘Wild West’ Challenge

JASON MARK
Earth Island Journal

The seat of Catron County, N.M. is home to a scant 600 people, and Main Street is little more than a collection of old adobe homes, log cabins, and doublewide trailers.

Reserve, N.M. may be an out-of-wayplace, close to the middle of nowhere, but it’s at the very center of the debate over the reintroduction of the Mexican gray wolf. The ranchers and hunting outfitters of Catron County and adjacent Grant County form the vanguard of the opposition to the wolf ’s return to the Southwest. The predator, they say, is a threat to their livestock, as well as to the elk and deer that roam the juniper- and piñon-studded grasslands. The wolves, Catron County locals say, are even a threat to their families.

The fight over the wolf ’s return to the Southwest – like the larger battle over the gray wolf in the Northern Rocky Mountains – is mostly a contest about control. Who should control decisions about public lands use, wildlife management, and resource development? The federal government, or local agencies? To many rural folks the feds seem a distant and threatening enemy, and the wolves have become a kind of proxy target, a scapegoat for worries about the power of the federal government.

And so the fight over the fate of the wolf is, at its heart, a test of whether ranchers and hunters will ever be able to reconcile themselves to the wolf ’s wildness. The good folks of Catron County, New Mexico are proud of their ability to survive in a harsh landscape. They are, in their own way, untamed. The question is whether they will be able to extend their love of liberty to the wolf ’s own wild instincts.

Bringing Factions Together
Everyone wore their tribal affinities on their sleeve at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s gray wolf public comment hearing held in Albuquerque on Nov. 20. The ranchers looked the part of ranchers. The enviros and wildlife lovers fit their own stereotype; One woman was dressed up as a wolf, fuzzy ears and furry tail and all. Some 500 people had turned out to express their feelings about the wolf.

The impassioned comments delivered during three hours of testimony closely followed the script of the decades-long Wolf War. Environmentalists – spearheaded by the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, and the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance – made the case that the apex predator is an essential part of a healthy ecosystem, and that, as a matter of ecological justice, the animal should be allowed to roam across much of its former range. “I believe this species has no chance to survive if we don’t protect it,” a wolf lover named Isabel Rodolfi said. “We are part of nature, and nature never belonged to us alone in the first place. It would be nice to share our resources.”

The ranchers, led by the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, complained that the wolves put their livelihoods at risk. “These animals will prey on our pets and our livestock, and perhaps worse,” a representative from the organization said.

Hunters and outfitters, represented by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, argued that while predators have a place in the landscape, their numbers must be closely controlled so they don’t overwhelm game herds. “It should be left to each state agency, not the federal government, to decide whether wolves should be allowed in their territory,” a spokesman for the group said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service staffers on the dais, a gray-suited group straight out of federal bureaucrat Central Casting, listened impassively throughout the comments, giving little clue as to what they were thinking. The Albuquerque hearing was the fourth of five public comment sessions the USFWS hosted across the country this fall. The public comment period closed on Dec. 17.

Different Wolf, Same Problems
The specifics of the debate over the Mexican gray wolf differ somewhat from the controversy surrounding the wolf populations in the Northern Rocky Mountains and Western Great Lakes regions. In the northern parts of the country, where an estimated 5,000 wolves live in the wild, the USFWS is proposing to remove the wolf from the endangered species list. The USFWS’s proposed delisting is the result of an unprecedented 2011 Congressional vote to remove federal protection for the wolf in the Rockies. The southwestern wolf is in a much different place. There are just 75 Mexican gray wolves in the wild, with another 300 animals in captive breeding programs in the U.S. and Mexico. The USFWS is moving to allow the wolf ’s population to expand to at least 100 animals, to classify it as an “essential species,” and to significantly expand the area in which the wolves are allowed.

Environmentalists have cheered the proposal to let the Mexican gray wolves travel across a larger area. The change in management strategy appears to be an admission by the USFWS that constraining an animal like the wolf isn’t workable. The current wolf recovery zone is pretty big – about 6,800 square miles, or some 4.4 million acres, in the Gila and Apache National Forests. But that’s still a tiny pen for an animal that can cover 200 miles in a 24-hour period.

Since 1998, the USFWS has had to “translocate” 104 wolves that have roamed outside of the human-created recovery zone. “Translocation” is government-speak for shooting the animals with a tranquilizer dart from a helicopter; picking up the sedated animal and moving it sometimes more than a hundred miles to new territory; and re-depositing it into the landscape, a traumatic experience that often blows apart the wolves’ sophisticated pack structure. The whole effort is about as pointless and effective as trying to tack olive oil to the wall. As one wolf advocate after another reminded the government biologists at the Albuquerque hearing, “wolves can’t read maps.”

Allowing the wolves more space to roam is the very least the USFWS should do, says Dave Parsons, a former USFWS wildlife biologist who launched the wolf recovery program in Arizona and New Mexico in the 1990s. “The 2011 [USFWS] recovery plan called for three distinct populations of at least 200 wolves each,” Parsons said the morning before the packed public hearing. “Up to 750 wolves total, populations that would be interconnected via suitable habitat. In that 750 scenario, the density of wolves in a given area is very small. That’s what the best science calls for.” At the hearing, a New Mexico State Senator from Albuquerque, Jerry Ortiz y Pino, urged the Fish and Wildlife Service to “make decisions based on science, not on balancing any interests,” which, he said, “is what we have politicians for.” There are grazing allotments on about half of all National Forest System lands, making the livestock industry one of the U.S. Forest Service’s major clients – and a political force to be reckoned with. At the Albuquerque hearing, New Mexico ranchers made it clear that their opposition to the wolf is unyielding.

“We have seen the reintroduction program become a threat to the safety, health, and welfare of our citizens,” said Bucky Allred, a rancher and café owner from Glenwood, a ranching community south of Reserve. “It is devastating and destroying our economic base – wildlife and livestock. We feel the agency has failed to keep us aware of your programs. The majority of citizens in Catron County oppose this program.”

So do many of the people in nearby Grant County, according to rancher Ty Bays. “I ranch down there. I raise cattle right next to Gila Wilderness,” he told the room. “Dave Parsons, the self-professed savior of the Mexican wolf, said that they would not kill out cattle. We’ve been lied to. Now you’re saying you need more room. Soon 100 wolves won’t be enough. De-list the gray wolf. Do not expand the boundary. This program has been a complete failure.”

Ongoing Challenge for Ranchers
The ranchers’ antagonism to the wolf is, of course, nothing new. Since gray wolves began reappearing in the Rockies more than 20 years ago, sheep and cattle farmers have been the most impassioned opponents of the wolf. To them, the animal is nothing less than an existential threat. And so, it seems, this conflict won’t be settled unless the wolves are once again extirpated from the Lower 48. Or until the ranchers’ fever somehow breaks. But that would likely require a wholesale rethinking about how to co-exist with wildness – a distant prospect, to say the least.

“The wild is not wild,” Caren Cowan, the executive director of the cattle growers association, said at one point during the hearing. “It’s where our families are. It’s where we live. Trying to force them [the wolves] back in is not working for anyone, least of all the wolves.”

“We are disproportionately affected by the wolves, unlike the people who are the wolf aficionados,” a Catron County rancher Laura Schneberger, said.

In 2012, wolves killed at least 19 head of livestock in her area. Since 2006, there have been 116 confirmed wolf depredations in Catron County, says Jess Carey, a wildlife investigator there. There’s no question that livestock depredation is a hard thing for ranchers to experience. For starters, losing an animal is a real financial loss that, if it happens repeatedly, can cost a rancher thousands of dollars. The federal government does reimburse ranchers for any livestock depredation that is confirmed to be a wolf kill, something that doesn’t happen for livestock depredation from coyotes, mountain lions, or black bears. Compensation ranges from $800 for a confirmed calf kill to $2,500 for a bull, and $225 for most sheep. But financial compensation can’t cover the whole feeling of harm.

Originally published on the website of Earth Island Journal, www.earthislandjournal. org.

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