Thursday, May 7, 2015

Ranchers in Catron County worry about wolf-coyote hybrids

By: Kai Porter, KOB Eyewitness News 4 

  Folks in Catron County are worried about a new aggressive predator turning up their community: A wolf-coyote hybrid.

Wolves have long been a thorn in the side of ranchers in the county, killing and injuring dozens of livestock every year. It's a highly controversial and politically-charged issue. Now the new fear is fueling the debate.

"My concerns are for my children primary," said Anella Russo, who moved to Catron County from Atlanta a few years ago. After spotting a wolf near her property, the mother of seven built a wolf shelter to protect her kids at the bus stop. Experts say wolf attacks on humans are extremely rare, but she's not taking any chances.

"My biggest fear is that I'm going to go outside one day in my yard and not have my firearm with me," she said.

In 1998, the federal government started releasing Mexican Grey Wolves in the Southwest as part of its Wolf Recovery Program.

According to the government, at the end of last year, about 109 wolves occupied the Blue Range Wolf recovery area in eastern Arizona and western New Mexico.

Word is now spreading through the county about wolves possibly mating with coyotes.

"There are coyotes everywhere,” said Russo. “I've seen wolf tracks in my yard. So if the wolves and coyotes are mating, then we're going to have huge populations of an aggressive canine right in my backyard, right where I live with my kids."

Russo was so concerned she contacted her county commissioner, Anita Hand. Hand is also worried about a hybrid breed turning up in the county.

"They're more aggressive,” she said. “They're definitely more aggressive. They start going after cattle. They go after livestock. We have some concerns about them going after the children or going after human beings."

KOB was there a few weeks ago as county leaders met with state officials to discuss the issue. Hand says a rancher was recently bitten, possibly by a wolf-coyote hybrid.

"There were several different sizes,” she said. “There were wolf tracks plus smaller tracks. There was a larger wolf and he had his dogs with him. So in the midst of everything, he was unable to tell if it was a coyote, a wolf hybrid, or a wolf."

While some, like the commissioner, believe a wolf-coyote hybrid could be more aggressive, others, like one expert we spoke to, aren't so sure.

"In my opinion, I don't think you can find an animal that's going to be more severe than a wolf itself," said Jess Carey, the county’s wildlife investigator.

This year he's already confirmed 20 cases of wolves attacking and killing livestock, and he worries a wolf coyote hybrid could make the problem worse.

"Can a wolf and coyote produce offspring? Yes they can," said Carey.

However, not one confirmed case of a wolf-coyote hybrid has ever been found in Catron County.
That's why county leaders are calling on the government to start DNA testing waste samples, so ranchers know what they're up against.

"They basically feel that it's going to be like a super-predator," said Carey.

We reached out to the Fish and Wildlife Service for a response.

A spokesperson says they've already been testing canine DNA found in the wilderness, and while there have been three confirmed cases of dog-wolf hybrids, there are no  confirmed cases of a wolf-coyote hybrid here in New Mexico.

They will continue testing.