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AZ: US seeks more wolf releases as count grows

Tim Steller Arizona Daily Star

Arizona and U.S. officials are likely to resume this year their awkward dance over releasing new endangered Mexican gray wolves in the White Mountains and vicinity.

While announcing an increase in the wolf population of New Mexico and Arizona on Friday, Benjamin Tuggle, the regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said he hopes to initiate more releases of wolves in the next 12 to 18 months.

But he acknowledged wanting the support of Arizona Game and Fish, which has resisted future introductions.

“The decision is the service’s decision,” Tuggle said of his federal agency. “But in the final analysis, the goal is to make sure our partners are with us.”

The new census found 58 wolves in Eastern Arizona and Western New Mexico at the end of 2011, up from 50 at the end of 2010. Of those present at the end of 2011, 18 were pups born last year.

The population increase was the second in a row after officials counted 42 at the end of 2009, prompting them to say in 2010 the program was close to failing. The numbers are a minimum, in that they don’t reflect any wolves the surveyors couldn’t find.

New releases are important to the wolf population because they increase genetic diversity, reinforcing the viability of the population, Tuggle said.

However, Arizona Game and Fish, which for years led the reintroduction effort and still staffs it with five full-time employees, has taken a resistant stance toward future releases. On Dec. 2, the Game and Fish Commission voted to oppose any future releases until the Fish and Wildlife Service completes several planning measures.

Then on Jan. 13, the commission eased that stance. Now, when a wolf is illegally killed, the Game and Fish director may approve a replacement introduction. And when a wolf dies by other causes, the commission will consider whether to approve a release.

Arizona Game and Fish doesn’t formally have a veto over releases, but its contributions to the program and staff dedicated to it give the agency leverage. New Mexico Game and Fish stopped supporting the wolf program in January 2011.

“It was a good year for us as it relates to working with the Arizona Game and Fish Commission, from the standpoint of getting them to understand the value of genetics and to modify their position,” Tuggle said.

Tuggle and Arizona Game and Fish Director Larry Voyles emphasized the importance of cooperating with those who live and work in the wolf-reintroduction area.

“Building public tolerance by those who live on the land and must coexist with the wolf is crucial to the success of the Mexican wolf program in Arizona,” Voyles said in a written statement.

But Laura Schneberger, president of the Gila Livestock Growers Association in Western New Mexico, said ranchers in the area are largely fed up with the program. An incident in December highlighted residents’ concerns: A wolf went to a New Mexico ranch house, played with dogs there, climbed on the porch and was unfazed by efforts to chase it away. Eventually wildlife officials killed it.

That official response was an exception to the rule, Schneberger said.

“They don’t seem that interested in going after the wolves that we report,” Schneberger said.

But Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity said it appears wildlife officials’ increasing caution in interfering with wolves has helped their population recover.

In November 2009, the Fish and Wildlife Service settled a lawsuit by the center, agreeing to scrap a six-year-old system for removing wolves that eat cattle and to take control of the wolf program away from Arizona Game and Fish. Since then, Robinson noted, the wolf population has increased.

Wolf numbers

The number of Mexican gray wolves in Arizona and New Mexico counted in annual survey

Year Count Breeding pairs

2011 58 6

2010 50 2

2009 42 2

2008 52 2

2007 52 4

2006 59 7

2005 35-49 5

2004 44-48 6

2003 55 3

2002 42 5

Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service