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NM: Ranchers decry plan for wolf protection: County backs opposition to federal proposal

By Todd Wildermuth, Editor

Several area ranchers expressed their opposition to a federal plan that would offer protection to wolves that may migrate into northern New Mexico in growing numbers in the future. The Colfax County commission promised the county would share the ranchers’ strong concerns with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and take any other steps it can to keep predatory wolves from negatively impacting the local livestock industry.

The unanimous anti-wolf sentiment expressed at Tuesday’s commission meeting came during a public hearing for commissioners to listen to citizens’ input regarding the Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposed Southwestern Gray Wolf Management Plan. The plan contains detailed, multiple-layered standards and procedures by which a gray wolf could be deemed a “problem” wolf for attacking livestock or pets or coming too close to humans, and how that wolf would be dealt with.

The proposed plan “gives the wolves more protection than our farmers and ranchers,” said Marietta Shell, a former Colfax County commissioner. “These are predators I do not believe can be managed.”

Shell called for the county to continue to take a stand against anything that could allow the wolf population in the region to grow.

The county commission in 2000, while Shell was a commissioner, adopted a resolution opposing the reintroduction of wolves in Colfax County. In 2008, the commission passed an ordinance stating a similar position and making it a crime to import wolves into the county. However, federal actions would likely override any county ordinances.
Still, the commission at the time said the ordinance was designed to be a “strong statement” against having wolves re-established in the county.

The current management proposal from the federal Fish and Wildlife Service notes that it does not include plans for the agency to actively reintroduce gray wolves into the designated area, but is meant to plan for managing “wolves that naturally disperse into, or recolonize” portions of Arizona, New Mexico and western Texas, areas where they are listed as an endangered species and would require certain protections against being killed and other measures to promote the survival of the species. Federal officials anticipate wolves could soon migrate into the three-state region from central and northern Mexico, as well as from the northern Rocky Mountains. The Mexico and northern Rocky regions have been sites of previous wolf reintroduction projects.

Commissioner Bill Sauble, a rancher himself, made a motion that county officials look at revising the 2008 ordinance stating opposition not only to wolves being intentionally reintroduced into the county but opposing federal protections for wolves naturally migrating into it. The motion passed unanimously.

“The federal government lives in la-la land,” said rancher James Kneip. “Wolves are mass murderers…they can wipe out a whole herd.” He said allowing wolves to expand their numbers in ranching-rich Colfax County and northeast New Mexico is to “put a death sentence on your livelihood.”

Barbara Miller noted that without ranchers making money from their livestock businesses, the county would have a greatly reduced tax base.

“We cannot let the federal government come in and tell us how to operate our operation,” she said.

Bob Ricklefs said the government has “no right to allow these wolves on private property without the option of lethal” action being taken by ranchers whose livestock are preyed upon. Private property owners, Ricklefs said, “should be able to kill wolves as needed.”

The proposed plan, however, limits wolf killing to instances that involve “human health and safety.” To address wolves that become a problem to ranchers and other property owners, the plan relies mainly on relocation of the animals. To initiate consideration of labeling a particular wolf a problem, the wolf must have first been responsible for at least two instances of depredation on livestock within six months, been part of a pack responsible for at least two livestock depredation instances within six months, depredated domestic animals or pets at least twice within six months, or become habituated to humans, human residences or other facilities, according to the plan, which also requires “clear evidence” show that a wolf was responsible for the damage.

Morris Mosimann said the federal protections for wolves would “take away our ways of making a living.” He called the proposed plan an issue of “private land rights in this part of the county.”

Commissioner Sauble’s motion Tuesday addressed not only a potential revision of the county’s ordinance, but also called for the county to investigate the possibility of joining a New Mexico/Arizona coalition trying to address the wolf issue, and explore the potential for gaining formal status as a “cooperating” entity with the Fish and Wildlife Service so the federal agency would be required to keep the county fully informed and gather input from it on this matter. The motion also directed the county to submit the citizens’ comments made at Tuesday’s hearing to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Tom Buckley, the public affairs officer for the Fish and Wildlife Service office in Albuquerque, said the agency is currently accepting input from counties, state wildlife agencies and Indian tribes. That input will be accepted through April 1 and then changes based on those comments will potentially be incorporated into a new draft of the proposed wolf management plan, Buckley said. He said once the draft is updated, a comment period will open for the general public.

County Commissioner Landon Newton said he believes it is “not a matter of if, but when” wolves show up in Colfax County. He expressed concern not only for the impact on livestock, but also the potential for “a lot of human contact” in places like Philmont Scout Ranch that draws thousands of Boys Scouts each summer.

County Manager Don Day called it “imperative that we protect our livelihood” and promised the county “will try to do everything we can to protect our citizens.”