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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

With a warm, soothing voice, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s new wolf coordinator, Bud Fazio, seems accustomed to calming tensions. Despite leading a program that has become increasingly wieldy, he doesn’t seem battle-weary.

Of course, he’s only been here since May—he worked the past eight years as coordinator of the red wolf recovery project in the southeastern United States—and has yet to spend much time in the field.

He’s aware of the program’s problems and the many criticisms leveled against it.

“I think one of the biggest challenges is helping people to understand that wolves and people can in fact live together on the landscape,” he says. “With that comes the challenge that we have to take care of people on the landscape, as much as we do wolves—and we are always striving toward working with our partners to do that.”

Currently, the service is trying to establish an interdiction program that would offer ranches incentives to manage cattle differently—specifically, to manage cattle in a way that would allow wolves to exist in the wild. The program might also compensate ranchers for cattle lost to wolves.

The agency also is at work on two documents: a conservation assessment evaluating what has—and has not—worked within the program and an environmental assessment, which is exploring whether the wolf release area might be expanded from a small portion of the recovery area in eastern Arizona to a larger area that includes New Mexico.

The agency also hopes to redefine the term “breeding pair”—a term crucial to how the reintroduction plan is evaluated. The program’s original goal was to have at least 100 individual wolves and 18 breeding pairs. Breeding pairs—different from mated pairs—are currently defined as an alpha male and alpha female who have successfully bred and reared pups through the end of the calendar year.

In 2008—10 years after reintroduction efforts began—there were only two documented breeding pairs. Currently, Fazio believes there are between three and eight packs with pups living in the wild.

Each month, the program team posts monthly progress reports online. Reading these reports, it’s easy to see how intensively these animals are managed—even micro-managed.

In early February, for example, project personnel darted and captured a female wolf approximately 30 miles outside of the recovery zone after being moved into New Mexico in January. She was inspected at a vet clinic in Pinetop, Ariz., then placed within a chain-link-fence pen within the Fox Mountain pack territory “in an attempt to allow the pack to locate it.”

After several days, personnel decided that, “due to [her] uncertain breeding status” a different female wolf from captivity should replace her in the pen—to maximize the mating potential of an alpha male. She was removed from the pen and placed in the Sevilleta Wolf Management Facility near Socorro. The female wolf who replaced her was found dead within eight days. Her death remains under investigation.

It’s not an unusual story.

Even the project’s poster child—Brunhilda, the alpha female of the first wolf pack introduced in the Southwest, whose image graced agency posters and public relations material—met an unfortunate end. In July 2005, biologists captured her, planning to remove her radio collar and vaccinate her four pups. But the wolf overheated during her checkup and died. That was a mistake, obviously—and one team biologists took to heart.

Those biologists, however, aren’t the ones making the big decisions that affect the wolves. That responsibility is left to members of AMOC.

Given that the mandates of some of those member agencies are related to livestock production and animal control rather than endangered species protection, it is fair to say some committee members look less favorably upon the plight of wolves than others.

For its part, the stance of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish has evolved in recent years, in large part because of Gov. Bill Richardson’s stated support for the wolf program.

That evolution—and the agencies’ collaboration on the program—can be considered something of a success, according to Matt Wunder, chief of the department’s Conservation Service’s Division.

“In terms of the population, clearly, I think everybody would say that as far as the numbers go, we would have liked to see the numbers higher than they are at this point,” he says. “Because those numbers have fluctuated in the 40 to 60 range for a number of years now, I think that everybody feels that…we certainly could be farther along than we are this point.”

Most of the division’s time, he says, is spent trying to minimize conflicts between livestock and wolves.

“We recognize that there are impacts, that there are very polarized constituencies out there that are either very pro-wolf or, in some cases, very anti-wolf,” he says. “This is definitely not an easy program, but the department is definitely committed to it.”

This spring, in fact, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish was the only member of AMOC that recommended against removing from the wild or killing Alpha Male 1114, the wolf who had killed four head of cattle within a one-year period.

According to the agency’s recommendation, the rancher in question had rejected efforts to apply “proactive” measures on public lands; additionally, the male’s survival in the wild was linked to that of the pups as well.

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Mexican Wolf Interagency field Team

In 2008, a poll conducted by Brian Sanderoff’s Albuquerque-based Research & Polling, Inc. showed 77 percent of Arizonans and 69 percent of New Mexicans support or strongly support reintroducing wolves on public lands in their states; 21 percent of New Mexicans and 13 percent of Arizonans oppose the program.

The state of wolf recovery is so shaky that removal of this one animal could be detrimental not only to the survival of the San Mateo pack, but to the entire population’s success. As such, his life was spared—for now.

Yet even in the wild—and blessed by the best intentions of program managers—things haven’t gone smoothly for AM 1114, his mate, nor the six pups born to them in April.

Two pups were found dead, Fazio says. The adults abandoned the den, bringing one pup with them. When the female returned to retrieve the remaining pups, she found they had backed themselves into a crevice. Unable to coax them out, she eventually left them behind.

“We did our best to first try to bring the pups out of the crevice, and then we tried to reunite them with their parents,” he says. “When that didn’t work with the first pup, we made the call that it was more important that the remaining pups survive.”
Biologists captured the two pups and brought them to the captive breeding facility in Sevilleta.

“The reason we put all that effort in is they have the kind of genetics we want out there on the landscape,” Fazio says, explaining that to create a viable population, its genetic makeup must be diverse.

Yet, the yips of these pups—like the howls of so many others who were meant to again roam southwestern forests—will be heard only from within captivity.  SFR


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