Written by Geoffrey Plant
Some ranchers who graze cattle in the Gila continue to be concerned by a recent rise in wolf depredations — 77 total confirmed kills since January — on cattle this year. Historically, many ranchers have been very vocal about why, in their opinion, wolves were nearly eliminated by the end of the 1960s. Grant County rancher Ty Bays has no reservations lambasting the Mexican gray wolf reintroduction program that he sees as threatening his and fellow ranchers’ livelihoods.
His family has raised cattle in the Gila for generations and although Bays has no direct experience with wolves killing his livestock in Grant County, he said it won’t be long until wolves start depredating outside Catron County, where all of the New Mexico depredations have recently taken place. “That’s coming to Grant County, it is going to get worse,” he predicted. “Wolves are expanding and that’s to be expected.”
Indeed, the 2018 wolf count released in April reflected a successful wolf population in the Gila with more than 131 Mexican gray wolves counted in the wild — a 12 percent increase since 2017. Unfortunately, the first part of 2019 saw a spike in wolf depredations and that has ranchers worried.
Bays said the “whole idea” of the wolf reintroduction plan “is to drive ranchers out of business — the wolf is just a tool.” He added that in his opinion, “the Center for Biological Diversity wants to end livestock grazing.”
“Wolves and humans and agriculture can’t coexist,” Bays said.
While the Center for Biological Diversity is a strong advocate of the wolf reintroduction program — and for the protection of endangered and threatened species of all stripes — it is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in partnership with New Mexico and Arizona Departments of Game and Fish, the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies, that heads up the Mexican gray wolf reintroduction in the Gila. The environmental protection group said it doesn’t want to end livestock grazing.
“Nonsense,” said Michael Robinson from the Center for Biological Diversity.
“The Center for Biological Diversity is not opposed to the grazing of privately owned livestock on public lands in circumstances that would meet the following criteria: that livestock grazing and associated management does not impede recovery of endangered wildlife; the livestock grazing does not foul streams, rivers and lakes, for example, with feces or sediment; and the livestock grazing does not cost taxpayers money,” Robinson said in a statement. “Unfortunately, none of these three common sense criteria are being met in the case of cattle in the Gila National Forest.”
Bays also made a claim echoed by many who oppose the reintroduction program, that the wolf population in the Gila was never of significant numbers and the wolves in question — which Bays also contends are not a legitimate subspecies, but a hybrid — are artificially bolstered by high numbers of elk on which to prey. “Historically, their primary source of prey was whitetail deer,” he said. “There weren’t enough whitetail deer around back then to support a large wolf population.”
“By having a nonessential experimental population — that designation allows us to release the wolves and relaxes the provisions of the Endangered Species Act so we have more options,” said John Oakleaf, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service project coordinator. “Removal of wolves, for example, or even lethal control.” The 10-J experimental area [the Mexican gray wolf reintroduction area] allows us to have management flexibility — but we want people to understand that the reintroduction is in conjunction with the existing uses of the land.”
Oakleaf says the reintroduction program seeks harmony between existing uses of the forest — like cattle grazing — and the presence of wolves. “Grazing is entirely compatible to a whole bunch of species on the landscape,” he said. “We share the same goal with ranchers. We want to have minimal depredations and they do too.”
Oakleaf also addressed the “artificial population” argument. “Things change all the time; when we look at one period to the next it is inevitable that things change,” he said. “The one thing I know is that things change and the wolves will adaptto whatever prey they have. The more cattle there were in the past, the more they started depredating on cattle — everything changes.
“There may be times when there were fewer, but our monitoring techniques were also not as sophisticated in the past. Also a lot of historical data comes from when there was heavy wolf population control — so there were fewer,” Oakleaf said.
Earlier this year, the National Academy of Sciences published a paper on the taxonomy of wolves that addresses the claims of ranchers who say the Mexican gray wolves being released aren’t legitimate members of a subspecies.
The paper — which Oakleaf characterized as good science — confirms that the Mexican gray wolf is a legitimate taxonomy and is not a hybrid. “Arguments against recognizing the Mexican gray wolf as a subspecies are based on a definition of subspecies that is not widely accepted in the scientific community,” the paper reads. “There is no evidence that Mexican gray wolf genomes include introgression from domestic dogs.”