Monday, December 24, 2012

Team's daily job is to manage wolves back from the brink of extinction

Posted: Sunday, December 23, 2012
PINETOP — March 29, will mark 15th anniversary that Mexican Gray wolves have again roamed free in the mountains of east central Arizona and western New Mexico. The last of the original population of wolves had been extirpated from the landscape of the Southwest by the mid-1900s, killed off by the federal government, local governments and livestock producers. The population that was reintroduced in 1998 was captive bred from seven individuals caught in Mexico. 
The original goal of the program was to have established a self-sustaining population of wolves by 2006. The population goal was originally set at 100. It’s been more than six years since the original target date and by the end of 2011 the number was at about 58 wolves in the wild with well over 200 in a captive breeding program.

A little over half of the goal has been met and it’s over six years behind schedule. But despite those disheartening numbers success may perhaps be assessed by gains in what was described as the “ultimate factor.”  In a 2001 assessment of the wolf reintroduction program the most critical factor for long term success of the effort was listed as “human attitude.”

It was human attitudes that led to near extinction of the wolves. To bring the wolves back is going to require the cooperation of people, according to the 2001 assessment. Echoing the words of the 2001 report, current field team leader of the wolf project, Chris Bagnoli said, “The single biggest factor is human acceptance and tolerance.”

Bagnoli is the Interagency Field Team Leader for the Mexican wolf reintroduction project. He works for Arizona Game and Fish, in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Forest Service, USDA Wildlife Services (APHIS) and, until recently, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish. The White Mountain Apache Tribe is also a cooperator with the program. Bagnoli’s job, with his four field team members, is the day-to-day management of wolves. His job is to implement the policies, as approved by Fish and Wildlife.

Bagnoli’s job is not easy and is not so much about management of wild wolves as it is about dealing with people. Many of the people he deals with daily do not support the program. “It can be a grind,” he said in an interview Dec. 18. “It’s a difficult and challenging environment. People are always looking at what you’re doing and most of the people we deal with on the ground aren’t crazy about wolves or aren’t always happy about what we’re doing.”

The field team faces opposition from  livestock producers and other people who live in rural areas who are understandably skeptical after they’ve lost livestock or had their dogs attacked by wolves. At the other end of the spectrum are people who favor wolf reintroduction but are displeased when the team has to implement management decisions about the wolves that may involve killing them or trapping them and removing them from the wild.

In trying to “manage around” the potential for conflicts between wolves and livestock Bagnoli’s team has to look carefully at areas where wolf releases are being considered. “Some people will say (that the presence of livestock) shouldn’t matter ‘you should put the wolves anywhere.’”

“Well it does matter. It’s got to matter,” Bagnoli said. “You’ve got to manage around it.” The Forest Service is mandated to manage public land for multiple uses, including conflicting uses such as grazing and reintroduction of endangered species. Because of that mandate, Bagnoli said, they are required to manage wolves in a way that “weighs” the rights of grazing permittees.

In the last year and a half new problems have arisen that challenge the wolf reintroduction program.  In June 2011, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish withdrew from the program. Six months later the Arizona Game and Fish Commission voted to end its support for any more wolf releases until there is a new recovery plan to replace the 30-year-old plan that has been guiding the program. The game and fish commissioners  revised their stand in January 2012 and moved to support the release of wolves to replace wolves killed illegally and under some circumstances for wolves lost to natural causes.  Bagnoli said there is currently planning in progress to release some “replacement” wolves in 2013.

In addition to these recent impediments, the program has been since its inception hampered by the terms of the three-decade-old plan, long acknowledged as outdated. That 1982 plan requires that initial releases of wolves be limited to a small area of the Apache Forest in Greenlee County and requires that wolves stay inside the confines of the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area. Those two requirements alone have increased the difficulty of managing the program.

By restricting initial wolf releases to only one very small “primary release” area it limits the program’s ability to succeed by not allowing releases in more favorable areas in the 5,000 square mile Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area. Confinement to the one release zone, Bagnoli describes as a “bottleneck.”

Requiring that wolves be removed that stray outside the boundaries of the recovery area, young wolves are often prevented from following their natural tendency for dispersal to form new packs. “Wolves don’t understand boundaries,” Bagnoli said, “but it’s a constraint we currently operate under.” 

Bagnoli and his team members do not control policy. Their task is to figure out how and when to release wolves and how to prevent as much as possible wolf/livestock conflicts. Figuring out how and when to release wolves is “a mix of art and science,” Bagnoli said. “You can’t just throw an animal out there and say ‘good luck.’ We have to look for opportunities to integrate the animals into the wild.”

The Mexican wolf program was further made more difficult as the initial releases were wolves that had been bred in captivity, wolves not educated in wolf life skills. “We’ve taken animals out of captivity that have spent their lives behind chain link fence and we’re turning them loose in the wild and hoping they’ll be able to figure it out,” Bagnoli said.

Experienced wolves “they know where the prey is, they know how to follow the prey around, they know how to avoid humans... how to handle an animal, how to kill it, how to pursue it, how to hunt. If you’re a young wolf in that pack you’re going to learn  that.”

The wolves that are bred in captivity and then released require a lot of management activity, said Bagnoli, just to get “them on the right track.” The right track for a wolf is to “figure out how to kill deer and elk,” how to avoid people and “how to set up a territory and integrate themselves into it.”
Although the problems associated with attaining success are many, Bagnoli is optimistic about the current situation.

In 2012, two new packs formed, bringing the number to 14, and now almost all of the wolves in the wild were born in the wild.  The two new packs, Bagnoli said, is a “big development.”
Another recent development that Bagnoli cites as a step toward winning over human attitudes for the project is the formation and ongoing work of the Interdiction Stakeholder Council. The council is composed of livestock producers and groups who support the wolf program. This council is working collaboratively to resolve the conflicts, outside of the courtroom. “It’s an important development,” Bagnoli said. “It’s tough for them (livestock producers) to support something that’s harming their livelihood.”

“The stakeholders that live in ranch houses in the (wolf recovery area) are very leery of it. They’ve had to live through it.” In January, Bagnoli’s team will start the annual count of wolves that will be used to create an annual report on the program. 

When Bagnoli speaks about the wolf program, it’s clear from his answers that he’s addressed all the questions many times since he started managing the team in July 2008. It’s also clear that he’s pragmatic and dedicated to making the program a success.

“Wolves are endangered, they’re rare but we want them to be viewed like every other animal in terms of integrating them into a system, not necessarily placing them higher than other animals,” Bagnoli said.

“The environment has changed. It’s not the 1880s; there are more people now. If we’ve demonstrated anything it’s that we’ve got a population of wolves that have established themselves and are able to integrate themselves into the modern day landscape. “It’s been a big challenge, but a worthy one.”

“We want and support a population of Mexican wolves within their historic range in Arizona. They are an important part of our wildlife heritage but we want them to fit in the modern day landscape. There are really good people involved in this. It’s important for the State of Arizona to be involved in this and do things responsibly and try to move wolf conservation forward.”

When asked about his personal view of his job managing a controversial program, Bagnoli said, “It’s definitely been worth it. It’s been rewarding on a number of levels. I have no regrets.”

Editor’s note: This story is the first of an ongoing series of stories about the Mexican gray wolf reintroduction project. See the winter White Mountain Outdoors magazine, in the Tuesday, Dec. 25 White Mountain Independent, for more stories on the project.