June 9, 2021

Dispute over wolf cross-fostering in Catron County

After learning about a plan to place captive-born Mexican wolves in a den of wild wolves in Catron County, Rep. Yvette Herrell, a Republican from New Mexico, wrote a letter to State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard urging her to reconsider the move.

“These activities are occurring less than two miles from the home of several of my constituents who have expressed to me their extreme alarm and fear for the safety of their family and livestock,” Herrell wrote in the letter dated May 7. “These constituents were only notified several days before the cross-fostering was to begin, giving them little time to voice their opposition.”

Garcia Richard granted permission in April for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to cross-foster wolves at the den. The cross-fostering of wolves is done to increase genetic diversity among the population.

In her letter, Herrell said the cross-fostering places lessees at greater risk for harm caused by the reintroduction of the Mexican gray wolf. She highlighted that wolves killed 151 livestock during 2020 in Arizona and New Mexico.

Biologists who have been involved in the wolf recovery efforts in New Mexico say that number is likely much higher than the actual number of livestock killed by wolves and steps can be taken to reduce depredation while also allowing for wolf recovery.

Investigating cattle deaths

Wildlife Services, an agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is tasked with investigating and confirming wolf kills. Investigators look for signs like hemorrhaging at the bite wound. The hemorrhaging indicates that the cow was indeed killed by a predator and that the wolves did not find the carcass and begin scavenging after the cow was already dead. The bite marks are also checked to make sure they match wolf bites and not another animal.

Michelle Lute is a biologist who previously worked on wolf recovery efforts for the State Land Office. In that role, she went with Wildlife Services on several investigations during her time at the State Land Office.

“There are several nuances while investigating that can make it difficult, so I think you have to err on the side of caution and if it is questionable you can’t confirm that it is a wolf,” she said. 

However, she said in many cases when the cause of death is not clear, Wildlife Services will call it a wolf kill and pay the rancher for the cow. This is done to reduce the conflict between ranchers and wolves, but Lute said it leads to inaccurate data about livestock predation.

If a carcass is old, the cause of death may not be clear, Lute said. 

“Sometimes if a carcass has been out there for days even the most seasoned investigator is not going to be able to prove what killed the cow,” Lute said, explaining that the corpse will have been exposed to the elements and decomposed too much.

At the same time, Lute said the ranchers often accompany the investigators and can pressure them to rule the kill as a wolf kill. 

Dave Parsons is a retired biologist who worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Mexican wolf recovery efforts in the southwest. He said in 1998 the first wolves were released in the Gila and Apache national forests in New Mexico and Arizona. Eleven wolves and three packs were released the first year. Now 186 Mexican wolves are roaming in the two states as of January.

“There’s a lot of perceived conflict,” Parsons said, adding that there is a lot of pushback from the ranching community about the wolf recovery efforts.

Like Lute, Parsons said there are questions about the validity of the numbers of livestock killed by wolves, especially in New Mexico where it appears that there is more conflict than in the neighboring communities in Arizona.

Ranchers are not the only ones concerned about wolves. Parsons said hunters and guides and outfitters have also expressed concern, although he said guides and outfitters could take advantage of the wolf populations to attract tourists.

Parsons said the number of cattle killed by wolves is very small compared to the overall number of cow deaths every year. He said there are many causes of cattle deaths including disease, drought and lightning strikes.

Protecting livestock

The canines’ shy nature can be used to reduce the chances of wolves preying on cattle. One method that has been implemented near Yellowstone National Park is employing range riders. This increases the human presence near the cows, causing the wolves to be more wary about approaching the herd. The range riders can also find carcasses and have them removed so that they do not attract predators. Additionally, the range riders can improve the health of the herd by identifying sick cattle and cows that are having complications while calving.

Lute said the way ranchers currently manage their herds places them at greater risk of depredation because there are new calves being born over a long period of time.

“Many ranchers don’t synchronize the breeding of their cows so you’ve got vulnerable calves on the ground throughout most of the year,” she said. “And that makes it really hard to protect those cows.”

In other parts of the country where wolves are more common, ranchers time breeding so that the calves are all born over a relatively short time period.

Lute also suggested using shelters, rotating grazing regimes and increasing human presence. While these methods do have an upfront cost, Lute said they save money in the long run.

“To go out and kill predators every year is way more expensive,” Lute said.

Additionally, Lute said killing predators can actually lead to more livestock and predator conflicts by leading to more young predators on the landscape that are more likely to view cattle as prey. She said if one of the breeding pair of wolves is killed, the younger wolves cannot hunt well on their own and are more likely to search for easier prey like calves. 

She said picking up carcasses and after birth is another way to reduce the likelihood of cattle being killed by predators.

“That’s their gateway drug essentially, after birth and carcasses,” she said. “They don’t necessarily see cows as a prey item at first because it’s not part of their history of food items. So it’s got to be learned and oftentimes the way it is learned is through carcasses and after birth.”

Parsons also talked about the various non-lethal coexistence methods for sharing a landscape with wolves. He highlighted the Mexican Wolf Livestock Coexistence Council, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services oversees. This group was founded in 2011 and includes ranchers, environmentalists, tribes and counties in New Mexico and Arizona. It developed a coexistence plan in 2014. This plan includes three strategies: paying ranchers when wolves are present near their herds, providing funding for conflict avoidance measures like range riders and compensating ranchers who lose cows to wolves.

At the same time, he acknowledged that ranchers are reluctant to add expenses to their operations, adding that profits are often marginal.

Economic impacts

But Herrell stated in her letter that the loss of cattle to depredation has a “devastating effect on livestock producers.” She further stated that this can have a rippling economic impact in communities where cattle ranching operations are the main economic driver.

Herrell expressed concern that the fees were waived for the cross-fostering of wolves and wrote in the letter that the explanation given for waiving the fee was that the cross-fostering was in the best interest of the trust.

“I find this logic to be extremely flawed, given the presence of wolves puts the very cattle operations that help to fund the trust at risk,” she wrote.

However, both Lute and Parsons said wolves could provide economic benefits to communities like Catron County. They said tourists could be attracted to the area in hopes of seeing wolves, as they are in and around Yellowstone National Park.

State Land Office responds

Garcia Richard responded with a letter on May 27 addressed to the congresswoman. In that letter, the state land commissioner addressed what she described as “misconceptions.”

She stated that the State Land Office is mandated to raise revenue for education while also protecting the long-term health of the trust land.

“Long term health of the trust includes maintaining and strengthening the ecological and biological diversity of the lands we manage to promote robust wildlife and ecosystems,” she wrote in the letter. “For us, that requires using science-based land management principles to determine our conservation priorities, and in this case, the evidence is clear: the USFWS Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Program is in the best interest of the ecosystem and therefore the trust.”

Earlier this year, the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association sued the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish alleging that the number of elk are destroying rangelands. Parsons said theoretically wolves could reduce that elk population, thus increasing the forage for cattle. However this has not yet been documented in New Mexico. He said there are not enough wolves in the state to provide that benefit to the ranchers.

In Yellowstone National Park, wolves were able to expand in population and distribution without any conflict with ranching. This provided ecological benefits as the wolves reached a population density great enough to manage the elk population, Parsons said. He also said wolves regulate their own population at sustainable levels.

Regulating elk populations is not the only benefit the wolves could provide. A study in Wisconsin this year found that wolves decreased the number of deer being hit by cars by changing deer behavior. The study found that the wolves saved Wisconsin residents $10.9 million by reducing the number of deer-vehicle collisions.

Parsons said in addition to reducing the number of prey like elk and deer, the wolves lead to changes in the ungulate behavior. That includes having deer more alert and avoiding areas where they think wolves may be. Wolves, he added, like to travel along trails and roads because it is an easier way to move across the landscape. That could lead to deer avoiding roads.

The Mexican wolf management plan states that the population will not be allowed to exceed 320 wolves. Parsons said this number is too low for the wolf population to be ecologically effective or to ensure long-term recovery.

Garcia Richard said the State Land Office is in close contact with people who have grazing leases that could be impacted by the wolves.

“We have communicated to the federal agencies involved that proper notification to our lessees is a requirement of their continued access to state trust land,” she stated in the letter.