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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

July 15, 2009, 12:00 am

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.

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Courtesy Michael Robinson

Michael Robinson has spent more than 10 years advocating for the recovery of Mexican gray wolves in New Mexico.

“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.

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