U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has released a revised proposal to save
the endangered Mexican gray wolf by including all of Rim Country in a
sprawling, two-state area where it could introduce new wolf packs.
The proposal would essentially
allow the wolves to wander outside that core reintroduction area into
all of Arizona and New Mexico south of Interstate 40, in an attempt to
connect the recovering wolf population in the United States with
reintroduced populations in Mexico.
The proposal did respond to pleas to loosen restrictions on killing or harassing wolves to protect pets and cattle.
However, the USFWS proposal
largely rejected a plan by Arizona Game and Fish and a coalition of
other concerned parties to limit the reintroduction efforts to a much
smaller area. That plan would have put the western limit to the
reintroduction area along the boundary of the Hellsgate Wilderness area
east of Payson.
The USFWS proposal would
instead include the Payson and Young Ranger Districts of the Tonto
National Forest in the core area for introductions, which would stretch
through the White Mountains to the current reintroduction area and on
into New Mexico.
The new proposal would also
designate all of the state east of Highway 93 and south of Interstate 40
as an area the wolves could disburse into and where the USFWS could
move already introduced wolves around to avoid conflicts with people or
with each other.
The USFWS will hold hearings on
the proposal on Monday, Aug. 11 in Pinetop. Biologists will explain the
proposal at an informational session from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and then
hold a public hearing to get testimony from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. It will
also accept comments on the plan which offer specific changes or
information to help refine the proposal.
For the past decade, USFWS has
tried to build up a population of at least 100 wolves as part of an
“experimental, non-essential” population, which allows much greater
latitude in management than a simple endangered species designation. The
population around Alpine, the Blue Ridge Primitive area and on into New
Mexico this year reached 83, a new record. However, biologists say
they’ve run out of suitable territory in the existing recovery area to
introduce any more wolf packs.
USFWS regional director Ben
Tuggle said, “Over the last 16 years, we have learned much about
managing a wild population of Mexican wolves and it is clear that the
current rule does not provide the clarity or the flexibility needed to
effectively manage the experimental population in a working landscape.
We need to remedy that so we can continue wolf reintroductions while
being responsive to the diverse needs of local communities.”
The USFWS is still working on a
detailed environmental impact statement on the proposal, which will be
based on the proposed, expanded boundaries.
Previous proposals for an
expansion of the recovery area have drawn sharply contrasting reactions.
Many conservationist groups have urged as large a recovery area as
possible, given the small size of the wolf population and the large
territories wolf packs defend from other wolves.
However, many ranchers,
hunters and others have fought to limit the recovery area for fear the
expanding wolf packs would kill so many cattle they’ll drive struggling
ranchers out of business or reduce the deer and elk herds. Arizona’s
135,000 hunters contribute about $127 million annually to the state’s
economy, according to a Game and Fish study.
The proposed change in the
rules would allow people to drive off or kill wolves in the act of
attacking pets, cattle or other domesticated animals in the extended
recovery area. However, they would have to prove the wolf was attacking a
pet or domestic animal. Ranchers and other landowners could also get
permits to harass or kill wolves who posed a threat to people, animals
The analysis that came with
the proposed revisions predicted the big expansion in the area for
reintroductions would not have a major impact on either elk and deer
populations or ranchers, based on the experience of the last 16 years in
the existing recovery area.
The preliminary analysis
concluded Arizona and New Mexico together contribute about 2.5 percent
to the nation’s beef supply. About 90 percent of the 12,000 ranches in
Arizona and New Mexico have fewer than 100 cattle. These ranches produce
about 10 percent of the beef in the region, with a handful of ranches
with more than 2,500 head responsible for more than half of the state’s
Between 1998 and 2013 in the
current recovery area, the wolves killed about 56 cows and calves
annually — which includes both the confirmed and the unconfirmed
livestock kills for a significantly smaller population than now exists.
That worked out to a rate of about 118 kills for every 100 wolves each
year. The wolves reduced herds by .01 percent for both confirmed and
unconfirmed kills, the study concluded. Using 2012 prices, each 100
wolves would kill about $98,000 worth of cattle annually. Expanding the
range would increase the number of wolves to about 285 by 2026, which
could increase the annual livestock kills.
The USFWS operates a program
that will pay full compensation for confirmed kills and 50 percent
compensation for suspected kills, although many ranchers say the program
doesn’t fully reimburse them or take into account their true losses.
The analysis also suggested
the presence of wolves would make the cattle more alert and skittish and
probably prevent them for loitering in riparian areas. All of that
would reduce average cattle weights by about 6 percent in areas claimed
by a wolf pack. That could also eat into a ranch’s profit.
However, while the wolves
could have a significant impact on a specific small ranch operation, the
impact would be negligible on the larger operations that provide most
of the cattle, the analysis concluded.
The report also concluded the
expansion of the wolf territory would have a negligible impact on deer
and elk populations, treasured by hunters and many tourists as well.
The wolves tend to prey on
calves and fawns and older, often weaker deer and elk. By contrast,
hunters go for the largest elk. As a result, the kills of the wolves
probably won’t have much effect on the hunters.
Moreover, the Arizona Game and
Fish Department did a game survey of deer and elk in the current wolf
recovery and reintroduction area. The study found no noticeable impact
on the number of deer and elk in the areas claimed by the wolf packs.
That contrasts with studies in
Yellowstone after the reintroduction of the gray wolf, which found a
roughly 50 percent decline in elk populations. However, the sharp
decrease in elk populations there resulted in a big recovery of the
heavily grazed riparian areas, which benefited a host of other species.
The analysis also included
reactions to the rule changes by four undisclosed scientists, who
critiqued the scientific basis for the recommendations.
One review pointed out that
the proposal put too much emphasis on reducing wolf mortality which has
been low and not enough on figuring out why the wolves have had so few
pups that survived. For instance, in 2012 the 75 wolves in the existing
reintroduction area had only four breeding pairs. The 16 percent annual
mortality for the existing population “is surprising low for almost all
wolf populations,” the reviewer concluded. “It appears from the data
there’s a huge recruitment problem, there is not a wolf mortality
He said the program lacks
scientific evidence for many key assumptions, like how many wolves in
the wild it takes to establish a stable, self-sustaining population. The
overall plan set the goal at 100, but the reviewer said it’s likely the
real number is closer to 300.
He also noted that the USFWS
seems to have spent a lot more time and resources on “endless federal
bureaucratic issues, litigation response and settlements, rather than on
scientific inquiry, analysis, publication and subsequent modification
of field management.”
That scientific reviewer
concluded the plan should not make an open-ended promise to remove
wolves whenever private landowners complain without demonstrating the
wolves have caused some damage or danger. “The rule should be crystal
clear and then it is easy to implement and for the public to understand
and trust the Forest Service. For example, if a loner is on private land
10 percent of the time, will the Service try to remove it? What if nine
out of 10 landowners are OK, but one wants the wolves removed? What if
nine landowners want it removed, but the one with 90 percent of the pack
territory wants them left alone? How much time do they have to spend on
private land before the Service tries to search them out and remove
The reviewer also suggested
the plan should give Arizona and New Mexico a more prominent role in
management of the expanding wolf populations.
All the scientific reviewers
offered detailed critiques. However, they all agreed with the proposal’s
suggestion that the success of the reintroduction effort depends on the
huge expansion of the recovery areas.