Written by Benjamin Fisher
Livestock producers looking for federal compensation for effects to their animals from the Mexican gray wolf population being reintroduced to Arizona and New Mexico have until June 1 to apply for that relief. This, in light of the recent ruling allowing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to once again release the wolves in New Mexico and the first cross-fostering in recent weeks.
Ranchers and farmers in Grant and Catron counties have long bemoaned the wolf’s reintroduction and preying on their livestock. Some of those claimed depredations are compensated by the government and nonprofits, but so too are effects on those livestock that fall short of fatal.
“Some of that idea is also for the extraordinary stress put on livestock when wolves attempt a kill,” said Ty Bays, Grant County rancher and New Mexico Cattlegrowers Association board member. “There are a lot of studies out there that show how the extreme stress of being around wolves and their repeated attempts at depredation can lead to weight loss, reduced gains, reduced pregnancy or reduced birthing rates.”
Through the Pay for Presence program, producers who believe their stock have been affected by nearby wolves can apply for financial compensation through the Mexican Wolf/Livestock Coexistence Council. The council — made up of ranchers, government officials and nonprofit agencies — evaluates the claims applications to determine whether the Mexican gray wolves in the wild could have caused harm to the livestock in question. Then, the council will distribute repayment based on several criteria — including how many head of livestock were in the area affected over the last year, whether a core area (like a den) is nearby, etc. Producers score extra points if they have implemented preventative measures like flagging fences, using Range Riders (folks on ATVs or horseback who watch for signs of wolf activity) and more.
“Depredation claims are made constantly throughout the year,” said Sherry Barrett, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Mexican Wolf Recovery coordinator. “Pay for Presence, instead, is more of a look back at the year.”
According to Barrett, Pay for Presence is funded through the federal Livestock Demonstration Program, through which $1 million is taken out of Fish and Wildlife’s recovery budget to compensate livestock users deemed affected.
“Now, that is competitive across the country, with all the wolf programs,” Barrett said. “So, we’re in competition with programs around Yellowstone and in Minnesota with much higher populations [of wolves].”
Here, the New Mexico Department of Agriculture is responsible for applying for grants from those funds. The funds then require a one-to-one match, here provided by nonprofits the Mexican Wolf Fund and the Defenders of Wildlife. Given that the Mexican gray wolf’s population in the wild — just under 100 by latest numbers — is a fraction of its cousins’ in other areas of the country, its recovery is lower on the totem pole and is funded accordingly. Therefore, livestock producers here receive a smaller pot from which to draw. About that, regional ranchers are none too satisfied.
“Especially with Pay for Presence, they think it’s underfunded,” Barrett said. “But, however much money is available that year is divvied up between all those applicants.”
Indeed, Bays said payments from both the depredation and Pay for Presence compensation programs only scratch the surface of ranchers’ losses.
“It doesn’t make anybody whole,” he said. “Us and the sportsmen are paying the price for this entire program. Neither one of us are being compensated duly or fairly. And, I am not sure it’s attainable. There’s no way to make us whole. Especially public lands ranchers, there’s no way for us to protect our livestock. It’s a flawed attempt.”
One of the ways the Coexistence Council evaluates applications for Pay for Presence is by tracking collared wolves to see if the packs in which they travel were near enough to livestock to have interacted. Not every wolf is collared, but Barrett said that gives the council a good enough idea of where wolves have moved.
“We know where their territories are,” she said. “The number of wolves in the area is not necessary to know, it is enough to know at least one wolf is there. If someone applies way east of where we know wolves are, we know it was something else.”
Keeping track of these collared wolves is one of the ways the U.S. Department of Agriculture evaluates claims of livestock depredation from wolves as well. Livestock producers request an investigation of dead livestock. A USDA Wildlife Services expert then assesses what they find. Bite marks on a carcass, especially the distance between the canine teeth, are a good indication as to whether it was a wolf that killed the animal, according to Barrett, since livestock are also killed by black bears, mountain lions, coyotes and feral dogs. The expert will also look for hemorrhaging beneath the skin near the bites, which indicates that those bites are actually what killed the animal. If there is no hemorrhaging, even if it is found to be a wolf’s bite, Barrett said it was likely made after the animal was dead.
“Wolves will also scavenge on animals when they are already dead,” she said.
According to Fish and Wildlife Public Information Officer John Bradley, most claims of depredation are found to not have been killed by wolves. In 2016, he said the Coexistence Council received 24 requests for confirmed livestock depredations, two confirmed livestock injuries and two probable livestock depredations. They paid a total of $53,791.18 just that year.
In 2014, Fish and Wildlife revised its plans for wolf recovery to include an expansion of the permitted range of the wolf from isolated spaces in New Mexico and Arizona to almost all of the land in those states between Interstate 40 and the U.S. border with Mexico. They also accelerated plans for reintroductions and translocations of wolves from captivity or elsewhere in the wild, respectively, according to a system of three zones.
The wolves don’t seem to have gotten the memo, though, as Barrett said neither the population nor its spread has increased noticeably since the change. Neither, she said, have depredations.
Applications for both Pay for Presence and depredation compensation are available at www.coexistencecouncil.org/guidelines-application.html. Again, the deadline for Pay for Presence compensation applications is June 1.
This is the first application deadline since Fish and Wildlife has been allowed to once again release Mexican gray wolves into the wild.
In 2016, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish filed suit against Fish and Wildlife for going through with its plans despite being denied permits from the state. That suit made it through 7th District Court. In late April, though, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the District Court’s decision, allowing Fish and Wildlife to once again release.
They took advantage of that swiftly, cross-fostering two pups into a den in the Gila National Forest from a zoo in Illinois to increase genetic diversity in the population.