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Assessing the Lobos

Sunday, April 8, 2001

Assessing the Lobos

By Tania Soussan

Journal Staff Writer

Three Mexican gray wolves pace nervously and cower against the fence of their pen at Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, north of Socorro.

Their hackles are up, but these 2-year-old wolves are clearly scared.

One by one, they are caught and put into large plastic crates by a team of 15 people armed with large nets and poles.

They don’t know it, but the trio of endangered wolves — two brothers and a female that biologists hope has taken one of the males for a mate — are headed for Arizona and for freedom.

Their release in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest the next day goes well. But two weeks later the wolves become a symbol of what some environmentalists and ranchers say is wrong with the federal reintroduction program.

The three wolves split up, and the female hangs around a ranch where cows are calving.

Now, three years into a federal program to reintroduce Mexican gray wolves into their historic range in southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is stepping back to assess the program.

Goals for number of wolves in the wild, reproduction and other measures of success largely have been met, says program coordinator Brian Kelly.


Wolf killed by mountain lions: 1

Wolves euthanized: 3 (2 with canine distemper, 1 brain tumor)

Wolves killed by vehicles: 3

Other deaths: 3 (pups with parvo virus)

Wolves shot: 6

Head of livestock killed by wolves: 9

“Fate unknown” wolves (disappeared from radio and visual tracking): 11

Wolves in the wild now: About 30

Total wolves released: About 60

Goal for wolves in the recovery area: 100

So far, about 60 wolves have been released in southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico, along the mountainous state line. Six of the wolves have been shot and killed by humans, 10 others have died and some have been returned to captivity.

About 30 wolves remain in the wild.

Since the program began in 1998, the wolves have been blamed for nine livestock kills in Arizona and New Mexico.

The reintroduction program aims to establish a wild population of 100 wolves. The animals were hunted to the brink of extinction in the early 1900s.

Critics of the wolf reintroduction effort — ranchers as well as some environmentalists — say major changes are needed if the program is to succeed.

Ranchers say leaders of the interagency wolf program should do more to manage the wolves and keep them away from homes and livestock. Environmentalists want the service to do less management, be more aggressive about introducing wolves, and be more forgiving of missteps by the wolves, such as coming too close to residences, livestock, and pet dogs.

“I am opposed to the whole program, but it’s out there, and we need to make it work for all of us,” said Laura Schneberger, a rancher west of Winston and president of the Gila Permittees Association, which represents ranchers operating on Forest Service land.

“I’d like to see (the Fish and Wildlife Service) cooperate, make us full partners so it doesn’t affect our lives.”

Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity in Silver City said too many wolves are dying — from diseases, human encounters and abandonment by mates or mothers — and too many are being removed from the wild by program managers. “We’re nowhere near getting to where we should be,” he said, meaning the numbers environmentalists believe need to be in the wild for a successful reintroduction program.

Kelly and others at the Fish and Wildlife Service remain upbeat.

“What we’re seeing is wolves beginning to act like wolves,” Kelly said. “Biologically, I think it’s doing quite well.”

Pups have been conceived and born in the wild, lone wolves have found mates and wolves are successfully hunting elk and establishing territories.

But to make sure the three-year review is objective, Kelly hired a team of scientists to look at the program data. The scientists could recommend changes or even suggest that the reintroduction program be scrapped.

Another part of the review will bring together 40 to 50 ranchers, environmentalists and others with interest in the program for a three-and-a-half-day meeting in Albuquerque this summer. The scientists expect to have their report ready in advance of the meeting.

But it probably will be difficult for those stakeholders to reach agreement.

Intervention needed

When wolves stray from their new, 5,000-square-mile habitat along the Arizona-New Mexico line, attack livestock or show other problem behavior, the Fish and Wildlife Service steps in and removes them from the wild.

That’s what had happened earlier with the three wolves taken from Sevilleta to Arizona last month. They left the recovery area last summer and were recaptured.

Robinson said taking wolves out of the wild and then re-releasing them at a new site is too stressful for the animals.

He points to a female from the group that biologists call the Mule Pack whose foot was injured by a mechanical trap in a biologists’ recapture effort. Her leg later had to be amputated. When she was re-released, she separated from her mate. Now, she appears to be lost.

Robinson also cited three pups from the Pipestem Pack that died of parvo virus after being recaptured. A report from a veterinarian says the pups likely were recovering from the virus and then relapsed “as result of stress from the whole trapping affair.”

“My point is moving them around like chess pieces doesn’t work with a species like this,” Robinson said.

Many ranchers, however, want the Fish and Wildlife Service to be more aggressive about removing wolves from the wild.

In early April — just about two weeks after the three young wolves named the Wildcat wolves were re-released in Arizona — Catron County ranchers Debbie and Mike Miller spotted the female near their home on the their Slash Ranch west of Winston.

Debbie Miller said they are worried the wolf will attack cows or young calves in the their herd of about 400. She also worries about Micha and A.J., her 8- and 13-year-old daughters.

“They’re hand-raised wolves,” she said. “They’re not scared of anything.”

Miller said she and other ranchers should be able to shoot a wolf if it comes close to their house.

On routine patrols of the recovery area, Fish and Wildlife Service field biologist Dan Stark picked up a signal from the female wolf’s radio collar, confirming she was near the Slash Ranch.

“She’s moved quite a bit,” he said. “Pretty much all the way across the recovery area.”

Stark also noticed something that might make the female wolf stay in the area: a dead calf by the side of the road. He asked the Millers for permission and then removed it.

“The best way to get them to move out of the area is to remove the carcass,” he said. “We’ll even attempt to haze or harass the wolf and move it away from the cattle.”

Colleen Buchanan, the biologist who manages the captive wolf facility at Sevilleta, said she was upset to see that the three Wildcat wolves had split up.

“I would not have expected that,” she said, calling them “a very tight group,” that slept together at Sevilleta.

Lone wolves don’t do as well as packs, and the female will have trouble if she gives birth to pups on her own.

“There’s a pretty slim chance she’ll be able to care for them,” Buchanan said.

But biologists say the split is not unusual for 2-year-old wolves and could be temporary.

Debbie Miller also said the young female wolf appeared to be starving.

That’s unlikely, biologists said. She had been in the wild only two weeks. She was well-fed in captivity and weighed about 49 pounds when released.

“They’re very skinny animals, even when they can eat as much as they want,” Kelly said.

The wolves’ size is the source of “one of the biggest misconceptions,” Kelly said. “People think they’re big, bad killing machines.”

In fact, the Mexican subspecies is among the smallest of the North American gray wolves — sometimes called lobos. Adults weigh 50 to 90 pounds and grow up to 32 inches tall.

Wolf watching

About 30 miles away from the Millers in the Black Range, Matt and Laura Schneberger have seen another lone female wolf at their Rafter Spear Ranch.

The Campbell Blue Pack female separated from her mate and has been traveling extensively, spending more than 30 days on the Schneberger’s ranch since mid- December. She has fed on a cow carcass there but doesn’t seem to have killed any cattle herself.

Still, the Schnebergers are uneasy with her continued presence.

They worry about their children and domestic animals, check their cattle more often and have been unable — because of the federal wolf reintroduction program — to control the coyotes that are a threat to calves.

Normally, they kill about 20 coyotes at this time of year. With an endangered wolf in the area, however, they cannot set out traps in case the wolf is caught.

The female, nicknamed Lonesome Lucy by the Schnebergers, is sometimes visible from the living room window.

“I’m kind of fond of this little wolf,” Laura Schneberger said. “She’s getting wilder. She’s learning.” But she and her husband remain unhappy about the wolf reintroduction program and both believe the goal of having 100 wolves in the recovery area is unrealistic and should be scaled back.

Schneberger also wants other changes in the program: Ranchers should be issued radio tracking equipment so they know when wolves are near their property. The number and size of packs should be limited and if the population grows too large, some wolves should be harvested.

In addition, Schneberger said ranchers should help choose sites for new wolf releases. “I think we know a little bit more than they do about the country out here,” she said.

At least a few New Mexico and Arizona ranchers have a different view of the wolves.

Jim Winder has agreed to allow wolves to live on his 20,000-acre Double Lightning ranch just outside the Gila National Forest in New Mexico.

“We want to have a healthy ecosystem,” he said. “That’s good for cows. That’s good for wolves. That’s good for people.”

He said wolves could be a benefit in several ways, such as controlling numbers of elk that ranchers say are taking grass from their cattle.

“Wolves will knock the hell out of the elk population given the chance,” Winder said.

Possible changes

Environmentalists also want changes to the reintroduction program, although their goals differ from those of the livestock industry.

The most important thing they want to see is the release of wolves directly into New Mexico — something the Fish and Wildlife Service also says is vital to the success of the program.

Current rules allow wolves to be let loose in New Mexico only after they are first released in Arizona and then recaptured for some reason.

Dave Parsons, a biologist and former coordinator of the federal program, said the inability to release wolves directly into New Mexico is “a serious flaw with the program.”

Almost all the good release sites in Arizona already have been used and are within the territory of established packs. Meanwhile, there are wolves in captivity that could be released if a place was available, Parsons said.

Craig Miller of Defenders of Wildlife agreed.

“It’s purely a political reason, preventing this program from being as successful as it could be,” he said.

Miller and Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity said livestock management practices in the Southwest need improvement.

In the Northern Rockies wolf reintroduction program, for example, ranchers are required to remove livestock carcasses or allow federal workers to do so.

“We have otherwise perfectly well-behaved wolves being continually exposed to livestock carcasses as food,” Miller said. “Most livestock-wolf conflicts can be avoided with very modest husbandry practices.”

But rancher Laura Schneberger said carcasses often are in isolated areas.

“There’s no way to clean up carcasses out here,” she said. “I don’t know what we’re supposed to do — dig holes out here in the ground when it is frozen with our bare hands?”

Defenders of Wildlife pays ranchers fair market value for livestock lost to wolves and is willing to help ranchers pay for portable electric fencing, hiring herdsmen during the calving season and installing scare devices like sirens or lights that are set off by the signals from the wolves’ radio collars.

So far, the group has paid about $6,000 to ranchers in the Southwest, less than it expected to, Miller said.

Matt Schneberger said the compensation often isn’t enough. Fair market value for a cow might be $500, but a cow that is adapted to the local environment can’t be easily replaced, he said.

“I could get 15 years out of that cow,” he said. “She is worth a lot more to me.”

Robinson said the Center for Biological Diversity would like to see some forest roads closed and all cattle grazing in the recovery area stopped. But he said those goals are unlikely to be achieved.

Whatever the outcome of the three-year program review, Fish and Wildlife Service wolf coordinator Brian Kelly is certain there will be some changes.

As it enters its fourth year, the recovery program is going through a transition, he said.

With the landmark conception and birth of pups in the wild last year and more litters expected this spring, wolf managers will have some new chores. They will work this summer to trap and collar young wolves, for example, and spend more time tracking pups.

“As we start getting reproduction out there, we need to shift our focus,” Kelly said.