Ted Turner’s Ladder Ranch will ask the state Game Commission on Thursday to overturn the department director’s denial of its permit to host endangered Mexican wolves in southwest New Mexico as part of the federal government’s recovery program.
The commission rejected the Ladder Ranch’s request in May to renew a permit that had been in place for 17 years to hold Mexican wolves in captivity – an attempt, wolf advocates say, to throw a wrench in the reintroduction program.
The commission’s denial of the Ladder Ranch permit was the first of several contentious decisions this year that have pitted the state against the federal government’s plans to reintroduce the Mexican wolf into the wild.
In September, the commission denied the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s request for permits to release Mexican wolves and pups in New Mexico, citing concerns about the government’s long-term plans for the program, including the lack of a target number for the wild population.
Weeks later, the service said it would use its federal authority under the Endangered Species Act to go forward with releases despite state opposition.
“I’m hoping that we can find a way to go forward together,” said Mike Phillips, director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund, which runs the Ladder Ranch. “Everybody has to be mindful that the Ladder Ranch facility is just wolves in captivity.”
The Ladder Ranch, outside the Gila National Forest, acts as a way station for wolves bred in captivity before they are released by Fish and Wildlife in New Mexico or Arizona.
Fish and Wildlife has relocated wild wolves to New Mexico at times since the reintroduction program began in 1998, but the agency has yet to introduce “new” wolves into New Mexico – those bred in captivity – under the authority of a new management rule that went into effect earlier this year.
The new rule expanded the area where the agency can release wolves to include the Gila National Forest; it also expanded the area where the wolves are permitted to roam, meaning it now stretches from Interstate 40 to the U.S.-Mexico border. Previously, “new” wolf releases took place in Arizona.
Ranchers in New Mexico have long opposed reintroduction of wolves, which have been known to prey on cattle and domestic animals.
The Ladder Ranch is like “a halfway house for wolves that are coming out of captive breeding facilities,” said Kevin Bixby, executive director of the Southwest Environmental Center. “It plays an important role in the reintroduction program going forward.”
“We go out of our way to minimize human contact and increase the odds (the wolves) are well suited to survive in the wild without conflicts,” Phillips said.
Also on the agenda Thursday: The Game and Fish Department will present its final “wildlife action plan” for approval by the commission. That plan, required by the federal government and updated every five years, ranks the Mexican wolf as a “tier 1” species requiring the “most urgent” conservation measures.
Additionally, the commission is slated to discuss in closed executive session whether to join a lawsuit by the state of Arizona against Interior Department Secretary Sally Jewell over Fish and Wildlife’s failure to develop a long-term recovery plan for the Mexican wolf – one of the reasons the commission has cited for its opposition to the reintroduction program.
The current 1982 recovery plan is widely viewed by both wolf advocates and opponents of the reintroduction program as outdated and insufficient to guide management of the wolf population. Fish and Wildlife says it is reconvening a team and a new recovery plan is expected in 2017.
At last count, there were 110 Mexican wolves in the wild across New Mexico and Arizona, according to Fish and Wildlife. The wolves in the wild, whose genetics derive from just seven surviving animals, suffer from inbreeding and advocates say release of new wolves is critical to inject diversity into the gene pool.
Socorro County board bans releases
SOCORRO — The Socorro County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved its wolf-human interaction ordinance — prohibiting release of Mexican wolves in the county — before an emotional, overflow crowd at its meeting last week.
Commissioners said they considered the financial loss to ranchers from potential attacks on livestock and protecting human safety. One official described the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s effort to carry out the Endangered Species Act as “a broken system.”
Area residents said they thought the passing of the ordinance was “going to be a legal mess” that would cost taxpayers and worries expressed were overstated.
— El Defensor Chieftain