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AZ: Ranchers question wolf count in Chiricahua area

Carol Broeder

Some local ranchers believe that while a recent press release on the Mexican wolf may be technically correct, it may not be the whole story.

In an April 6 combined statement, U.S. Fish and Wildlife and Arizona Game and Fish announced that a female Mexican wolf from an “ongoing reintroduction effort in Mexico” was captured March 26 on private ranch land in southeastern Arizona, then transported to the Sevilleta Wolf Management Facility in New Mexico.

Prior to the wolf’s capture, “some area ranchers reported possible livestock depredations in the area,” it said.

“USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service – Wildlife Services investigated eight livestock carcasses between March 22 and 27 to determine the cause of deaths,” the statement said.

Results confirmed that “one was killed by a wolf, four died of natural causes, two died of unknown causes, and one was unable to be investigated because of its deteriorated condition.”

Local rancher Vernon Cox described himself as “unfortunate enough” to have had the confirmed kill.

While Cox had “13 dead ones all told,” the inspectors only looked at eight, he said.

“The rest I found after they left. I didn’t call them back after that,” Cox said, explaining that the cattle found later had probably been dead for a week.

Area ranchers can understand losing some cattle every year, but not the 13 Cox lost within two month’s time, which they say seems like a lot for only one wolf to do.

In 2007, Cox and wife Sandra inherited the “‘X’ Ranch” in Pinery Canyon from her parents, Ellerbe and Pearl Riggs.

Married into a longtime ranching family, Cox also grew up working around cattle.

“My parents always had a few cows,” he said. As an adult, Cox “worked all around New Mexico and Arizona.”.

Asked if coyotes could have killed the cattle, Cox said coyotes are more likely “to kill chickens than cattle.”

“Coyotes may eat one (a cow) already down, but they would not chase down a big cow,” he said. “Even a calf, up and able, will fight a coyote.”

Cox went on to say that wolf kills look different from other kills.

Not familiar with the Mexican wolf, Cox had contacted friends from Clifton, as well as Silver City and Reserve, N.M., who told him what to look for.

Wolves have been known to eat their prey alive.

“A wolf will chew on the hind legs near the knee joints so they can’t run away, then rip open the flank and spill the guts,” he explained.

Cox acknowledged that medical trips to Tucson put some things “on the back burner” before he found the dead cattle in March this year.

Mike Wear, with the Wear Ranch, formerly the ZZ Ranch, about five miles from the Chiricahua National Monument, said, “I’m almost positive I had a wolf kill at the north end of my ranch.”

Wear, who has been ranching for 35 years, said the dead cow had been eaten “through the flank and the rib cage.” .

Like Cox, Wear questions some of the “kill determinations” inspectors make.

Wear, who has been both a range deputy and a peace officer in Graham County, also spotted five-and-a-half-inch canid tracks.

“At first, I thought it was a big dog,” Wear said, explaining that he had not been notified about the Mexican wolf in the area. “They told Vernon (Cox), not me.”

Acknowledging that his property is private while part of Cox’s land is public, Wear asks, nonetheless, “Why are they not telling us? Why don’t they let the locals know to be on the lookout? The transparency’s just not there.”

Wear believes the tracks he found were those of a “big male wolf.”

“That’s just not the same track as the little collared female,” he told the Range News. “A female wouldn’t lay down that big of a track. I think it’s a big male, especially with that many dead animals lined up (as Cox had).”

Instead of contacting an agency, Wear reported his findings to Cox, who he knew was getting a visit from an inspector, “but no one came over.”

Acknowledging that things have been quiet since the collared wolf was removed March 26, Wear believes the rest of the pack may have gone elsewhere.

“They had to break up that happy party” for the problem to end, he said.

Two questions seem to be uppermost in the minds of the ranchers — was there more than one wolf in the area, and if so, how did they get here?

“Most ranchers are truth seekers. We like to know answers,” Wear said. “We’re not getting any answers from these people.”

Wear, who holds a degree in wildlife biology from New Mexico State University, said, “Wolves are pack animals. I’ve never known of a lone female to travel without a male.”

“They tell us she’s alone, but I don’t believe she’s alone,” he said. “Are we to believe that one wolf came up from Mexico and never did any killing until it got here?”

In March, 22-year-old Trevor Antonick took a photograph of what he believes to be a wolf.

Antonick said he saw the wolf the first day he was working near the monument as an employee of Ed Alan Monzingo.

“I believe it was a wolf. It was quite thick and larger than a coyote,” he said.

Antonick saw the animal again the next day when he went back to work.

“I was within 20 yards of it when I pulled up in a truck. It was just standing on the other side of a couple of cows, looking at them for 20 minutes. I honked my truck horn and it just trots off. That ain’t no coyote,” he said.

He took the photo around 10:30 a.m., March 22, after the animal had trotted off and Antonick was on top of the windmill on which he was working.

Later that day, around 3:30 p.m., Antonick said he met the Fish and Wildlife employee who was in the area looking for the wolf to be removed from this area and placed in another area.

Wear said area ranchers had to be “super vigilant” through the month of March.

“I feel sorry for Vernon (Cox),” Wear said. “He was the one who was hurt the most.”

Asked about the financial loss to his ranch, Cox said it is “hard to figure.”

He lost “some big calves – one male and the rest heifers,” Cox said, explaining that there were “10 years worth of calves – replacement heifers,” that weighed about 350 pounds each, worth about $600 to $700 a piece.

While the April 6 statement said that ranchers experiencing “confirmed wolf depredations” may apply for compensation through the Arizona Livestock Loss Board, Cox said he has yet to receive his paperwork.

“They were supposed to send me a report the day they caught the wolf, but I haven’t heard anything yet,” he told the Range News.

Mark Hart, with Arizona Game and Fish, said Friday that the agency has now contacted Cox regarding the process for compensation through the federal government.

Further response from Game and Fish may be found in an upcoming edition of the Range News.