Alex Devoid, Arizona Republic
Several calves vanished last year from Laura Schneberger’s ranch in the Gila National Forest in Sierra County, New Mexico. She never saw them again.
Authorities couldn’t investigate what happened to them without carcasses, but Schneberger suspects endangered Mexican gray wolves killed them.
She said a fire crew saw a wolf near her cattle and that a U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services official told her one had been in the area.
She filed a claim with the department’s Farm Service Agency, she said. The department has funds to pay ranchers whose livestock have been attacked by Mexican gray wolves. But Schneberger is not optimistic the claim will go her way.
It wasn’t the first time she had a run-in with Mexican gray wolves on the ranch. In 2013, her husband shot and killed one as it attacked their cattle, she said.
Other ranchers in the area have had far more wolf encounters, she said.
“There’s people that have just lost a ton (of cattle),” said Schneberger, who is also the president of the Gila National Forest Permittees Association. She and other ranchers nearby have permits to graze cattle over portions of the 3.3 million-acre forest.
They pay to use the land. They also share it with endangered species federal officials introduce onto the same range.
Wolves have killed or injured livestock 21 times in Arizona and 50 times in New Mexico this year through June, in many cases within the Gila National Forest, according to the Mexican Wolf Reintroduction Project.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Mexican gray wolf recovery program has found itself in a familiar place, caught between two sides with competing interests. Ranchers in the area say too many wolves roam free.
Environmental groups want the agency to put even more wolves on the land.
More than two-dozen environmental groups recently called on the agency to release three more wolf packs into the Gila Wilderness, within the forest, saying it’s a crucial step toward saving the species from extinction.
Despite ranchers’ concerns, more wolves will roam Arizona and New Mexico in the coming years if all goes according to the recovery plan. Ranchers like Schneberger are bracing for that reality.
The recovery plan aims for an average of 320 wolves in the U.S. and 200 in Mexico for eight years before striking them from the endangered species list.
Despite ranchers’ fears of the current population, it isn’t even halfway to that goal. An estimated 114 wolves roamed Arizona and New Mexico, according to the latest annual survey. In February, Mexican officials reported 37 wolves.
Wildlife officials plan to release wolves from captivity to grow the population and to diversify the gene pool, but environmental groups disagree with how they’re doing it.
The gene pool
Death by human is a top threat to Mexican gray wolves, according to the recovery plan. Officials are investigating two wolves they found dead in May, bringing the total to six dead wolves so far this year.
Before the Endangered Species Act protected these wolves, government sponsored eradication campaigns nearly wiped them out. Today, all Mexican gray wolves are descendants from seven wolves that the recovery program began with in the 1980s.
The small amount of genetic diversity available from these founding wolves has been a concern since that time, according the latest revision of the recovery plan, which the Fish and Wildlife Service finalized last year.
The agency is aware that the species’ genetic diversity needs to improve, agency spokesman John Bradley said in a statement responding to the environmental groups’ call to release three more wolf packs.
Pups or packs?
In recent years, the Fish and Wildlife Service has moved away from releasing adults from captivity.
Instead, the agency started placing captive pups with other packs in the wild. It’s a method called cross-fostering and the environmental groups say it isn’t working.
Of the 10 captive-born wolf pups that the agency cross-fostered in 2016 and 2017, the agency has documented two pups as surviving, according to data in Bradley’s statement. They cross-fostered 10 more pups from wild or captive packs in 2018.
“The heartbreaking loss of so many cross-fostered pups means the (Fish and Wildlife Service) must return to the more reliable technique of releasing wolf families together,” Michael Robinson, a wolf advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement.
The Arizona Game and Fish Department, on the other hand, is “steadfastly” against releasing adult wolves to the wild, said Jim deVos, assistant director of wildlife management.
While the Fish and Wildlife Service won’t release captive adult wolves into the wild in 2018, the agency is considering doing so in 2019, Bradley said.
But the agency isn’t doing away with cross-fostering. The method “can be successful in releasing captive wolves that survive to reproductive age,” he wrote in a statement.
Nevertheless, the agency should release adult wolf parents with their pups, Robinson said in a statement: There is no reason not to in most cases.
Cross-fostering is more socially tolerable, deVos said. And garnering public support for any endangered species is essential for its survival.
This method is good tool for recovering Mexican gray wolves, he said. Releasing pups from captivity increases genetic diversity into the wild population.
Schneberger, however, has a different take.
Whether a wolf is an adult or a pup doesn’t make much difference for ranchers, she said. “It’s just more wolves.”