"There's no gray in this issue," Cerrillos activist Cindy Roper told attendees at a panel on animal trapping held in Albuquerque last week. "It's very black and white."
No gray, that is, except the Mexican gray wolf, a federally listed endangered species barely hanging on to its southern New Mexico habitat. The wolf was the beneficiary of a 2010 ban on trapping in its territory enacted by former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson—and the victim of that regulation’s recent reversal under a vote by the state Game Commission.
As far as the People's Forum on Public Lands Trapping attendees were concerned, the issue was every bit as clear-cut as Roper described. The 30 members of the public who signed up to speak at the Sept. 14 event were all in favor of overturning state regulations that currently allow trapping on public lands, including wolf territory.
State law allows use of steel-jawed leg traps at least 25 feet away from trails on public land in New Mexico for catching and killing "furbearer" animals including bobcats, coyotes, badgers, weasels, raccoons and other native mammals. The regulation has drawn fire because of the traps' penchant for catching (and often injuring or killing) nontarget animals, including domestic dogs.
In fall 2010, Richardson temporarily banned trapping in the southwestern part of the state, where Mexican gray wolves were introduced in a pilot program to bolster dwindling wild populations. The wolf has been listed as endangered since the 1970s, and the federal program to assist in its recovery also began at that time.
The Game Commission lifted the wolf territory trapping ban on July 21 at a meeting held in Clayton, in the far northeast corner of the state. Activists complained at the forum that the meeting was deliberately held in a noncentral location; nevertheless, the commission received letters and emails from 12,000 New Mexicans who argued to leave the ban in place. Just 2,000 weighed in on the opposite side of the argument, but the commission voted in the minority's favor.
The seven-member commission is appointed by the governor; three members are holdouts from the Richardson administration and four are new appointees made by Gov. Susana Martinez. Although the commission makes decisions that impact wildlife conservation and the environment, its members include sportsmen and a representative of the cattle industry. Martinez has voiced concern that the wolf introduction program could hurt cattle ranchers, even though US Department of Agriculture statistics show that depredation by any animal, let alone endangered wolves, accounts for a tiny fraction of cattle losses.
Although only approximately 50 of the wolves are left in the wild, their current status is less restrictive than a full “endangered” designation, US Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Tom Buckley tells SFR. If the wolves had the strictest protection, not even an experimental reintroduction program would be permitted under federal regulations, Buckley says. The wolves’ less-stringent protection status doesn’t restrict the state from allowing trapping in the reintroduction area, though Buckley says that, if a trapper did catch a wolf, it might constitute an Endangered Species Act violation.
According to a recent federal report on the effect of trapping on the Mexican wolf population, traps have killed at least two of the wolves in New Mexico and injured seven. Two of those each had a leg amputated. Activists argue that those seemingly small numbers are substantial in proportion to the total gray wolf population. In addition, the death of an individual wolf can have larger effects because of wolves' complex social order, causing a pack to fracture and decreasing its chances for survival, Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter activist Mary Katherine Ray says.
"It is such a small population that I think Richardson felt like we can't afford any losses," Ray says. "Any loss that we can do something about, we should do something about until this population gets better on its feet."
The Mexican Wolf Recovery Program set a goal of boosting the Mexican wolf population to 100 by 2006, and since the population is still just half that, the reasons for reversing the trapping ban are unclear.
None of the Game Commission members returned calls for comment before press time. But retired New Mexico wildlife biologist John Klingel didn't pull any punches when he told the forum what he thinks.
"The Game Commission's decision to open trapping in the Mexican wolf recovery area is illogical, irresponsible and unethical," Klingel said.