By Susan Montoya Bryan
ALBUQUERQUE – An endangered Mexican gray wolf has been killed by federal employees after a Native American tribe requested the animal be removed from the wild in the wake of a string of cattle deaths near the Arizona-New Mexico border.
The death of the female wolf marks the first time in a decade that efforts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to curb livestock attacks by wolves has had lethal consequences for one of the predators.
The decision to remove the member of the Diamond Pack was first made in June after three calves were killed over several days, sparking concern among wildlife managers about what they described as an unacceptable pattern of predation.
An investigation determined the female wolf was likely the culprit based on GPS and radio telemetry tracking, according to documents obtained Thursday by The Associated Press.
Another calf was killed in July, prompting the White Mountain Apache Tribe to call for the removal. That was followed by one confirmed kill and another probable kill by members of the pack on national forest land adjacent to the reservation.
Fish and Wildlife Service Regional Director Benjamin Tuggle issued another order in August calling for the wolf’s removal by the most expeditious means possible.
“I am concerned with the numerous depredations in this area over the past year and the toll these depredations have caused the area’s livestock producers,” Tuggle wrote.
Environmentalists decried the move, saying they are concerned about the possibility of managers reverting to a rigid three-strikes rule that called for wolves to be removed from the wild or killed if they preyed on livestock. After years of legal wrangling, federal officials revised that policy in 2015 to allow for more options when dealing with nuisance wolves.
Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity argued that killing wolves does nothing in the long run to reduce livestock losses.
“The recovery of endangered Mexican gray wolves has taken an unnecessary step backward,” he said.
Fish and Wildlife officials said current rules allow for the control of problem wolves and that the agency will continue to manage wolves in Arizona and New Mexico under those provisions. They also said they will continue to work with ranchers to limit conflicts.
The wolf recovery team earlier this year set up a diversionary cache of food for the Diamond Pack, which roams parts of tribal land and the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. Two other pack members were also removed and placed in captivity at the beginning of the year because of predation concerns.
There are now more Mexican gray wolves roaming the American Southwest than at any time since the federal government began trying to reintroduce the animals nearly two decades ago. The most recent annual survey shows at least 113 wolves spread between southwestern New Mexico and southeast Arizona.
Efforts to return the predators to the region have been hampered over the years by everything from politics to illegal killings and genetics.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has been criticized for its management of the wolves by ranchers, who say the animals are a threat to their livelihoods, and environmentalists who want more captive-bred wolves to be released.