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NM: County seeks larger role in Mexican wolf population plan

By Lisa Dunlap

Chaves County is preparing to go another round with a federal agency about the Mexican wolf.

County Manager Stanton Riggs said the county intends to partner with other counties before signing a memorandum of understanding sent by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that governs how the agency will develop a new rule about establishing experimental populations of the species in New Mexico and Arizona.

“We were given an MOU to sign on cooperation on the EIS (environmental impact statement),” Riggs said, who also said the county is working with the American Stewards of Liberty organization. Based in Austin, Texas, the group works to preserve landowners’ rights.

Riggs said the issue at this time is how much involvement county officials will have in the EIS and the rule-making process.

“We are going to be working on that (the MOU) to change it to ‘coordination’,” Riggs said. “Although they did mention coordination somewhat in the MOU, it is not spelled out very clearly.”

Chaves County is not a preferred location for introducing Mexican wolves to re-establish its populations, but it is considered an allowable area for the wolves should they migrate to the county.

Riggs said the county has worked for years to ensure that this area does not become one of the target zones for reintroduction.

“It is something that we have fought before, and I think we first started that one in 2014. So it is now back,” Riggs said.

The Mexican wolf, a subspecies of the gray wolf, once had large populations in southern New Mexico and northern Mexico, but it became endangered, as determined by federal officials. For the past 22 years, a task force of international, national, state and tribal agencies have worked to reintroduce some wolves back into New Mexico and Arizona, but the targeted reintroduction areas are west and south of Chaves County, as well as in portions of Arizona.

By March, there were at least 163 Mexican wolves in the two states, according to a Fish and Wildlife Service bulletin. This is the second year the population count has increased. According to a website that shows the location of tagged wolves, they are located west of White Sands.

Ranchers and farmers have long been at odds with government officials about allowing Mexican wolves near their livestock and farm animals. Chaves County Commissioner Jeff Bilberry refers to them as “serial killers” and said that he would be willing to advocate for the county’s position in Washington, D.C.

A March 2018 court ruling from a court in Arizona is requiring the Fish and Wildlife Service to revise its 2015 final rule about the Mexican Wolf Experimental Population Area to ensure that the group of wolves contribute to long-term wolf conservation and recovery. Fish and Wildlife is required to publish a final rule by May 2021.

As part of developing the revised final rule, the service is seeking public input until June 15 on a draft environmental impact supplement, which is required by the National Environmental Policy Act.

A Fish and Wildlife information page said the geographic boundaries of the experimental population will not be altered, but that the final rule is meant to better plan how genetic diversity will be preserved in the experimental population and how long-term conservation of the species can be promoted.

A request for information from a Fish and Wildlife spokesperson was not responded to by press time. But the service’s website indicates that the taking of wolves, including lethal action against them, would still be allowed when wolves are endangering domestic animals or people. But how attacks against livestock would be handled is part of what will be considered by the Environmental Impact Statement and the final rule.