GRAND CANYON, Ariz. – The Arizona Game and Fish Department (AZGFD) has been working on Mexican wolf recovery in northern Arizona for the last 17 years and now the area that these wolves could be spotted in is expanding.
“Interstate 40 is going to be the boundary for these critters,” said Ed Davis wolf biologist for Arizona Game and Fish Department (AGFD) in the Payson area. “Nothing is going to be above Interstate 40, it’s got to be south of I-40 and east of I-17 and right now north of Highway 260 and northwest of Highway 87.”
Historically, the Mexican wolf’s range included portions of the southwestern U.S. and northern parts of Mexico. In the next five years AZGFD said it is a possibility that these wolves could be seen in parts of Coconino National Forest.
“Wolves cannot be released, trans-located or anything like that in the Coconino (National Forest), so you guys are not in that area, but what it (data) is showing is that if they disperse there, they can persist there,” Davis said. “So if they roam into that area, we will not be removing them back right now.”
Game and Fish are currently in phase one of a program to help recover Mexican Wolves in Arizona and New Mexico. Between the two states, the department has a cap of 325 wolves and said they estimate that, in the future, Arizona will have between150 to 175 of the population.
“We don’t have that number now, we are at 110 wolves in the population,” he said. “Once that number begins to increase and once we get to that 325 mark that’s when we start to do other definitive actions.”
Other definitive actions could include taking them to Mexico and/or putting them into captivity.
“That’s kind of where we’re at, they’ve had about a 31 percent increase year before last,” Davis said. “Their numbers are increasing, they are starting to propagate pretty readily.”
According to Davis, AZGF expects a 20 percent population increase this year.
One action that the department does not want to see happen for the population is any hybridization or interbreeding with other wolves or species. Because they are being regulated the likelihood is slim, but could be a possibility if a Rocky Mountain Grey wolf wandered too far south.
“What we have seen, from a scientific standpoint, Mexican wolf genes have been seen as far north as Utah, but there have also historically been Rocky Mountain wolf genes down as low as Utah as well. So there is this kind of intermixed, hybridization zone between Rocky Mountain wolves and Mexican wolves,” Davis said. “That’s why Arizona really pushed for the I-40 boundary.”
Davis said the wolf that was shot on the North Rim of Grand Canyon late last year was a Rocky Mountain Grey wolf.
“It was a female that dispersed a long ways down here and that was a northern Rocky wolf,” he said. “That’s a huge deal, we do not want any hybridization. We do not want (our) wolves above I-40.”
“If you see wolves, if you think you see wolves, if you know someone who has, if you have pictures, anything like that definitely give me a call,” Davis said.
What to expect in the next five years
“The wolves are mostly in Game and Fish units one and 27, which are way over on the eastern side of the state, pretty far away from here,” Davis said. “As the wolves expanded, they’re getting packed in pretty good. We are getting some wolf on wolf mortality now, which means the population is getting pretty dense. So they’re going to start budding out from where they are.”
Game and Fish are also starting to see a number of wolves moving onto ceratain areas of Indian reservations. Currently the department has an agreement with the reservations and allows them to handle the wolves in those areas.
“As they’re are moving to the west side, that’s really the potential to get these wolves into the Sitgreaves and maybe a little corner of the Coconino as well as over on the Tonto,” Davis said.
Game and Fish saod one of the best ways for them to track the wolves is to put radio collars on them.
“If there’s an uncolored wolf, they can disperse distances – 60 miles is the average,” Davis said. “So if there’s a pack set up right there on the reservation, 60 miles gets you pretty far into the Coconino.”
Davis said it is extremely important to get information, as soon as possible, to AZGFD about any potential wolf sightings.
“The key thing here is to get all the information to me that you can,” he said. “My job 40 hours a week is figuring out where people are seeing animals as well as meeting them on the ground.”
Impacts to livestock and animals
“Wolves will depredate cattle,” Davis said. “We are seeing 90 percent of their prey base is elk and a large percent of that other 10 is deer.”
AZGFD is predicting around 34 livestock wolf kills per year.
“We’ve only had about four or five on average per year, here in Arizona – confirmed cattle loss and that’s between all of our packs,” Davis said. “Since the beginning of the project in 1998 until now, we have had 207 confirmed wolf kills.”
When a wolf makes a kill on livestock, AZGFD said they need to confirm the kill before a Co-existence council – made up of ranchers and other stakeholders, can determine what the current market value of the animal is for restitution purposes.
“It’s all about value of the animal,” Davis said. “So far no one has gone unpaid for anything.”
Taking a wolf’s life
“Anytime you feel your life is threatened, you can take a wolf – kill a wolf. It doesn’t matter if it is on state land, federal land or private land. That has always been a rule and that is still the rule,” Davis said.
When a wolf is on private land and is in the act of attacking cattle, pets (chickens are excluded) or any large animals Game and Fish said it is permissible to shoot the wolf. If a wolf is walking through your property you are not allowed to kill it.
Additionally, Fish and Wildlife Services can now issue legal (lethal) take permits for wolves. Prior to this year the permits were strictly governed by federal and state agencies.
“If this comes to the point where there is continual depredation of cattle and if you feel like we are not getting the job done, you apply to the Fish and Wildlife Service and they will give you a (lethal) take permit,” Davis said. “That hasn’t happened yet, so I don’t know what the turnaround time would be on that.”
According to Davis, state land is treated as private land – there is approximately 8 million acres of grazing (state) land in Arizona.
“If a wolf is attacking a horse, cow, whatever on your state lease land, you can take that animal,” Davis said.
AZGFD said uses hazing efforts like flagery (hanging flags around electric fences surrounding sheep and other animals and watchdogs, especially Great Pyrenees dogs, are good preventative measures for protecting livestock.
“It’s going to be a little different here, I don’t know what to expect exactly and through this whole building process I want people to know who we are and who to contact, so we can work on this together,” Davis said. “Wolves have not been here yet, they have not been in this area, so I can not tell you what’s going to happen.”