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AZ: Counties renew agreement to work with feds on wolf reintroduction

By Terence Corrigan
The Independent

HOLBROOK — The Navajo County Board of Supervisors unanimously reaffirmed their commitment to protecting cattle on March 26. With no discussion, the supervisors ratified an agreement between five Arizona counties, Arizona Game and Fish, the White Mountain Apache Tribe and four federal agencies on their intergovernmental relationship involving the reintroduction of the Mexican gray wolf.

(They also voted to spend $600,000 for 36 cattle guards. The funding to purchase the cattle guards was taken from Highway User Revenue Funds [fuel taxes], that by state law can only be used for highway projects.)

The new wolf program agreement, a memorandum of understanding (MOU), was a revision, two years in the making, of a previous MOU established two decades ago around the time the first Mexican wolves were released. The new MOU has only technical changes to the original agreement. It took two years to write as every agency’s attorneys had to approve the wording. Additional delays ensued when the US Fish and Wildlife Service regional office in Albuquerque was without a director for several months following the removal of Benjamin Tuggle in 2017.

The point of the MOU, says Navajo County Supervisor Jason Whiting, is to have a seat at the table, to communicate directly with US Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency with all the power when it comes to the Endangered Species Act.

The first groups of Mexican wolves were released along the New Mexico/ Arizona border on March 29, 1998, when 11 were released into the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area. The pioneer packs were not well received. Five were illegally killed within a few months and the rest were rounded up, captured and paired with new mates before being released again.

In the first four years, from 1998 to 2002, the released wolf population see-sawed — 110 released and 58 removed (either captured or killed). From 2003 to 2007, the saw-side of the equation prevailed with 84 removed and only 68 released.

The wolf population in 2018 was 131 – 64 in Arizona and 67 in New Mexico. The year before, the census pegged the number at 117.

The counties that signed on with the new MOU are all members of the Eastern Arizona Counties Organization (ECO). Graham, Greenlee, Gila and Navajo counties are signatories to the agreement. ECO member Apache County is not.

The federal agencies that are parties to the MOU are: US Fish and Wildlife Service (the agency with full legal control of the wolf reintroduction program), USDA (the Forest Service and Wildlife Services), the National Park Service and BLM.

Also signing on are Arizona Game and Fish Department and the White Mountain Apache Tribe.

Apache County bows out

Apache County’s absence is based in a persistent political question: Is it better to battle from the outside on principle or work from within and get some of what you want through compromise and cooperation?

But, Apache County, at least at the board of supervisors, has decided to not take a seat at the table of compromise.

“This is where you see the importance of individual elected officials in local government,” said ECO executive director Pascal Berlioux. “In Apache County, in the last couple of election cycles, there have been individual supervisors who have taken very strong positions on certain issues — local authority, versus state authority versus federal authority.”

In particular, in 2015, former District III supervisor Barry Weller, vehemently opposed the county’s continuing involvement in ECO, saying that organization, in working on compromise with Fish and Wildlife, was acting contrary to the interests of Apache County which, he said, wants no wolves at all.

“Some people believe that they can be more effective … working within the system,” Berlioux said. “While some people think they can be a more effective voice by fighting it from the outside. This is the perspective that Apache County has taken. But, that can change anytime we have an election.”

From Berlioux’s experience, no matter which side of the fence you’re on, you’re going to face opposition.

“Whichever side you sit on, somebody’s going to hate you,” he said.

Protecting a way of life

The 13-page MOU mentions the damage wolves cause to “livestock,” at least a half-dozen times and the stated intent, from the counties’ perspective, is about protecting the ranching culture, the way of life of many generations in rural northeast Arizona.

“We essentially have a federal agency coming to us and telling us ‘This is where we are going to recover the Mexican wolf and this is how we are going to do it,’” Berlioux said. Fish and Wildlife officials “can do whatever they freakin’ want. From a legal perspective the MOU is not even worth the paper it’s printed on.” Essentially, the Endangered Species Act, grants USFWS unlimited power. “The ESA says, ‘the heck with consequences, we are going to recover that species whatever the impact.’”

For the MOU to be meaningful, Berlioux said, it depends on the goodwill of those who signed it.

Ranching families, some of whom have worked for generations developing their ranches, have “emotional investment” in their ranch, Berlioux said. Some of these ranching families established their operations before the Forest Service or other federal agencies even existed.

“Their perspective is at odds with a technocrat’s perspective arriving here from New Jersey, who is appointed to run the Mexican wolf program at Fish and Wildlife in Albuquerque. You have a 28-year-old, straight out of school, who knows nothing about life, trying to lecture a 65-year-old rancher, whose family has been here for several generations. That creates some disconnect.”

Although he may not agree with them, Berlioux hears and understands the arguments of those who support the reintroduction of the Mexican wolf. Most Western ranchers run livestock with grazing leases on public lands (Forest Service and BLM) and the livestock losses they sustain (from predators) should be viewed as “part of the cost of doing business,” is how supporters of wolf reintroduction see it, Berlioux explained.

Berlioux sees the disputes from both sides.