Written by Stewart McClintic on October 21, 2015
The New Mexico State Game Commission will hold a public hearing in Roswell next month to consider an appeal by media mogul Ted Turner to import and possess Mexican gray wolves at his sprawling ranch in south-central New Mexico.
The Game Commission is scheduled to meet at 9 a.m. Nov. 19 at Pearson Auditorium on the campus of New Mexico Military Institute.
On the agenda, among other items, is an appeal by the Turner Endangered Species Fund, which requested a permit renewal to hold wolves in captivity at the Ladder Ranch.
The Ladder Ranch, private property owned by Turner, applied for permits to import and possess Mexican gray wolves at the 156,439-acre ranch property in south central New Mexico, where Turner is raising endangered Mexican wolves and bison.
The Game Commission earlier this year voted unanimously to deny the Ladder Ranch wolf applications. Cattle ranchers praised the Game Commission’s decision, while environmental and wildlife groups oppose the decision.
Game commissioners have said they couldn’t approve the permit because of the failure of the federal government to update a decades-old recovery plan for the wolves.
Officials with the Turner Endangered Species Fund said denying their permit applications will not
lead to a new recovery plan.
Turner, former owner of CNN, has bought 1.7 million acres in New Mexico, Kansas, Nebraska, Montana and South Dakota since 1987, becoming the largest private landowner in the United States.
In New Mexico, the billionaire owns almost 1.1 million acres, or 1.5 percent of the nation’s fifth-largest state.
The sprawling Ladder Ranch, in the foothills of the Black Range east of the Gila Mountains and south of Truth or Consequences, is caught in the middle of a dispute between the state and federal wildlife officials over management of the Mexican gray wolf.
The seven-member Game Commission on Sept. 29 upheld a previous decision by New Mexico Game and Fish Director Alexa Sandoval to deny the federal government a permit to release Mexican gray wolves in the Gila National Forest.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is appealing the State Game Commission’s Sept. 29 decision at a meeting held in Albuquerque.
Dan Williams, spokesman for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, told the Daily Record on Monday that the Game Commission frequently holds hearings across the state, and the Nov. 19 meeting in Roswell has been scheduled in the Alien City for months.
“It’s not like they scheduled this one just because of any particular agenda item,” Williams said. “It’s been scheduled since the beginning of the year.”
Following the Game Commission’s Sept. 29 decision declining to issue permits to the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, more than three dozen environmental groups asked the federal government to release at least five packs of Mexican gray wolves in New Mexico to bolster the genetics of the endangered predators.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the wolf recovery effort, noted that improving the gene pool has been a driver for recent decisions aimed at expanding the program and that the agency has an obligation under the Endangered Species Act to recover the subspecies.
Members of the New Mexico Game Commission and the director have voiced concerns about new wolf releases because the federal government has yet to update its decades-old recovery plan for the species.
The New Mexico Game and Fish Department, which withdrew from the recovery program years ago, also claims federal officials haven’t done enough to analyze the social and economic effects of having more wolves on the landscape.
Ranchers have been among the strongest critics, saying their communities and likelihoods are being threatened.
Chaves County Commissioner James Duffey, a sheep rancher at East Grand Plains, said wolves were hunted to make ranching possible in the West.
“There was a reason they were eradicated to begin with and that’s because of livestock and livestock reduction,” Duffey said. “We’ll probably be back in the same shape again if we get infestation of those things in here again.”
Duffey, who has about 150 ewes, said wolves threaten both sheep and cattle ranching.
“We have enough problems with coyotes and domesticated dogs, at least I do, and then you put wolves on top of that, it could be devastating to my sheep operation,” Duffey said. “That area for sheep production has gotten smaller and smaller because of predators already. I mean the coyotes have about put those guys out of business, some of them anyway, and it’s gotten smaller and smaller. You throw the wolves on top of it, it won’t be good. Wolves are even tough on cattle.”
Despite the Ladder Ranch permit issue, the coordinator of the wolf program said that the federal agency plans to move ahead with wolf releases.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has decided to pursue the reintroduction of wolves within the bounds of the Gila National Forest, to include one additional mating pair with pups, and up to 10 pups for cross-fostering with other parents.
Officials say that without the reintroduction of additional wolves, the lack of genetic diversity could damage the successful reintroduction and recovery of the Mexican gray wolf species.
At a Sept. 29 Game Commission hearing in Albuquerque, Sherry Barrett, the Mexican wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife offices, said the federal Fish and Wildlife Service continues to wish to work on the recovery of the Mexican wolf.
“The population at this time is continuing to grow substantially, adequately on its own,” Barrett said. “We’ve had about a 20 percent growth over the last few years and we do expect to continue to have a 10 percent growth per annual count that we have each year. So the growth is not our goal at this point for release of Mexican wolves, but rather the increase of the genetic health of the wild population.”
Barrett said the Mexican wolf is a very recoverable species whose principal enemy is human.
“[I]n the case of the Mexican wolf, it was eradicated from the wild as a result of intolerance of humans…,” Barrett said. “But those are things that we can work together to overcome and I would look forward to working with the department into the future to figure out the best ways to recover the Mexican wolf into its native habitat, especially that which must include New Mexico and to get the Mexican wolf eventually recovered, delisted from the Endangered Species Act, which would then again put it back into the management of the state of New Mexico.”
There are at least 110 Mexican wolves roaming parts of the Apache National Forest in Arizona and the Gila National Forest in New Mexico.
Reintroduction of wolves started in 1998, but the effort has been hampered over the years by politics, illegal killings and other factors. Disputes over the program’s management also have spurred numerous legal actions.
The reintroduction of the Mexican gray wolf has been fraught with controversy since its inception in the 1970s. Animal advocacy groups — like the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club — have rallied behind the wolf’s return to the Southwest. Opponents have come most vocally from the ranching and herding communities, who claim the cost to their livestock would be too high.