The Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Program has a simple premise: reintegrate an endangered species into its natural habitat. In practice, however, bringing the wolf back to the Southwest has proven to be anything but easy, with environmental groups and ranchers maintaining a heated debate during the 13 years the program’s been in existence.
The state’s Game Commission voted unanimously on June 9 to withdraw from the reintroduction effort. Gov. Susana Martinez appointed four new members to the six-member board in March. Bill Montoya is one of those new members. “It was costing us a lot of money,” says Montoya, who worked for the Game and Fish Department for 28 years. “We didn’t think we were going in the right direction.”
The reintroduction is handled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which placed wolves in the state in 1998. A year later, the state joined the program, and since then, New Mexico has contributed to the cause financially. Dan Williams, spokesperson for the Game and Fish Department, says the state has spent about $570,000 on the Mexican gray wolf since the program’s inception, and the federal government matched those funds. The portion from the state was generated by hunting and fishing fees, not taxpayer dollars.
Two state employees from Game and Fish worked on the program, and Williams says the department is evaluating where those employees will go now.
The state’s withdrawal may not have much of a direct impact on the reintroduction since its role in the effort has been minimal, but both sides of the debate wonder if it serves as a bellwether for further changes by the new administration. Former Gov. Bill Richardson outlawed the trapping of wolves in 2007. Environmental groups worry Martinez will overturn this rule, and ranchers hope she will.
Laura Schneberger is the president of the Gila Livestock Growers Association. Her cattle ranch has been in her family since 1964, though it’s more than a century old. She lost three calves to wolves in the spring, she says, and in 2003 she lost six. Schneberger’s main contention with the program is that she’s not allowed to treat wolves the same way she treats other large predators in the area. “The wolves don’t bother people nearly as much as the Fish and Wildlife Service’s and the environmentalists’ handling of it,” she says. She adds that she wouldn’t mind the wolves as much “if I could shoot the ones that cause problems.”
When black bears or mountain lions kill a calf, ranchers are allowed to shoot them, she says. But because the wolves are endangered, there’s not much ranchers can do to stop them.
Ranchers are supposed to be financially reimbursed for the cattle they lose due to wolves, but proving a wolf is responsible for a kill can be tricky. Schneberger says she’s only been reimbursed for two out of the nine calves she’s lost. But it’s not just about money. She says when wolves are staking out a ranch, “sometimes you lose a cow and calf pair a day. It’s very stressful. ... There’s an emotional response to what you see, what gore is inflicted on you and your kids.”
With Mexican gray wolves on the endangered species list, though, it’s easy to make the case for conservation. The Fish and Wildlife Service was only able to find 50 of them in New Mexico and Arizona in January, and those account for the only Mexican gray wolves not in captivity.
Other wolf reintroduction programs have fared better. The Fish and Wildlife Service counted 1,650 gray wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountain region last year, says Michael Robinson, conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity.
Robinson says the reason the Mexican gray wolf is on the verge of extinction is due, not surprisingly, to humans. The federal government tried to wipe out wolves in the early 20th century and widely accomplished its goal with poison. “We’ve gotten to a point where people in our society understand the value of other creatures and want to coexist,” says Robinson. “We shouldn’t allow this unique creature to disappear from the earth.”
Wolves also play a crucial role in local ecosystems, he adds. In Yellowstone, where the wolf recovery has been largely successful, other environmental factors have reaped rewards. Take cottonwood trees, for example. Before wolves were brought back, the elk population was so high that most cottonwood saplings were eaten before they made it to adulthood. “In the last 16 years since wolf reintroduction, trees have been allowed to mature and are now providing habitats for songbirds and logs for beavers, which provides habitat for fish,” he says. “The whole riparian ecosystem’s improved by the presence of wolves.”
For now, the Mexican gray wolf program will continue unchanged, even without the state’s participation. Robinson worries, however, that wolves will begin to kill more cattle without some action taken by the state. In the past, Game and Fish employees fed some wolves when they approached ranches in order to curb their appetites.
There’s no way to appeal the commission’s decision, and so Robinson and his group are focused on trying to improve the recovery effort. Meanwhile, Schneberger hopes the program will simply go away.