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Mexican Gray Wolf: A Story About People

Jöshua Barnett

All this week we're considering the Endangered Species Act and its affect on the wildlife, and people, of New Mexico.

The Mexican Gray Wolf is a species that, perhaps more than any other, has highlighted the political obstacles involved in recovery, or in this case, reintroduction.

At last count, the US Fish and Wildlife service reported a total of 58 Mexican gray wolves surviving in the wild. And while that's definitely an improvement from where they started, not everyone is impressed.

In March, a group of community members and environmentalists gathered in front of the federal building in downtown Albuquerque, demanding the US Fish and Wildlife service release more wolves into the wild.

Emotions were high that day, and it’s clear that these people are passionate about saving the native wolf population. As WildEarth Guardians' Bryan Bird explains, “the wolves were here before us, so they belong here. We extricated them for industrial purposes. It’s now time to make that wrong a right.”

By "industrial purposes," he’s referring to the livestock industry. In the early 1900's wolves were intentionally removed from the landscape here to make the area more cattle-friendly. And since the beginning of the wolf release program in the 1990's, cows, and their people, have become the wolves' biggest obstacle.

But representatives of the livestock industry disagree. Caren Cowan, with the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, says, “you know, I didn’t make the decision to take the wolves out, but trying to shoehorn them back in isn’t working. The fact is, we’ve had members go out of business, sell their ranches and move on because of losses due to these wolves.”

She explains that in today's market, losing a steer is like pulling $1,000 from a rancher's bank account.  But Cowan says the most frustrating thing about the Mexican gray wolf recovery program is that ranchers were left out of the discussion. "There’s never been a voice," she says. "There’s never been an acceptance to the wide variety of losses that are caused.”

As this battle rages, the Fish and Wildlife Service is caught in the middle. Spokeswoman Charna Lefton says the goal is to have wolves " successfully propagate and live in harmony with a working landscape.”

But figuring out exactly what a working landscape that includes wolves will look like is the million dollar question. Sherry Barrett, head of Fish and Wildlife’s wolf program, is quick to point out that they are getting close.

“What we’re finding from studies on the ground is that 80% of the diet of wolves is elk. And so it’s a smaller part of that that’s livestock or other species.”

But that 20% continues to add fuel to this fire.

The Mexican gray wolf has a special designation under the Endangered Species Act as an experimental-non essential population, giving Fish and Wildlife some flexibility in dealing with reintroduction issues.

Center for Biological Diversity’s Michael Robinson says “the theory behind that was that people who were opposed to the wolves would become less opposed to them and that would help the recovery.”

But really, that just hasn’t happened. And meanwhile Robinson says Fish and Wildlife now has the authority to interfere with wolves’ lives in ways they couldn’t under a regular listing. For instance, Robinson can point to several examples of wolves being moved…sometimes more than once…after straying from the designated recovery area.

“Scientists have pointed out that [wolves] can’t read maps written by politicians. They don’t know when they’ve crossed an invisible line from Gila National Forest to BLM public lands, for example, that would require the government to remove them”

There are some less extreme measures being explored, though, like conditioned taste aversion, which involves feeding wolves tainted cow meat. The idea is that by making them sick enough, they won’t see beef as a good food source.

But Robinson and other environmentalists insist that we should be focusing more on changing human habits instead of manipulating the wolves. 

That’s an approach that’s working pretty well for rancher Wilma Jenkins of the Double Circle ranch in Clifton Arizona, smack in the middle of wolf country. In her opinion, “ranchers aren’t opposed to the wolves, they’re opposed to losing money. But there are ranchers like myself who have reduced their kills to just about nothing through their management practices"

For her, that’s meant spending more time out in the field, watching and managing her cows. And she says, even though the extra herding costs more, its money well spent.

“It would be easier to take government payoff for every wolf kill than it would be to go out there and actually herd. But in my opinion that doesn’t solve the problem. It would be much more effective to solve the problem of wolf predators than to just keep paying for losses.”

That may seem a surprisingly center-of-the-road approach to an issue that’s usually portrayed as very two sided.

But caretakers of the Endangered Species Act would say the strength of the act lies in its ability to bring people together.

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