Rangeland management of the 20th century was dominated by killing anything and everything that threatened livestock. Predators, and especially wolves, were characterized as both nuisance and threat to ranchers and hunters alike for most of the last century.
As the nature writer Aldo Leopold once wrote about the first quarter of the 20th century, “In those days we had never heard of passing up the chance to kill a wolf.”
That mindset, encapsulated by extermination campaigns waged by the U.S. government up until the 1960s, brought species like the Mexican gray wolf to the brink of extinction. Today, wolves, coyotes and other predators are still considered public enemy number one in many ranching communities. But a growing body of research indicates that killing predators doesn’t actually help prevent attacks, and may in fact lead to increased conflicts between humans and livestock.
“There’s this old saying, if you kill a coyote, two show up to its funeral,” said Michelle Lute, National Carnivore Conservation Manager at Project Coyote, adding that there is now an “increasing scientific understanding around why people say that.”
“We didn’t know that for a long time, because science only answers the questions that we ask of it,” Lute said. “We just made this assumption that we’re going to kill a bunch of coyotes and of course that’s going to help.”
Now, there are hints that the mindset among some ranchers around wolves and other predators is beginning to shift away from lethal management and towards something like coexistence, where preventative management practices are employed to keep livestock losses at a minimum, while keeping the rangeland ecosystem healthy.
Such techniques “prevent loss before they occur, which is better for everybody,” Lute said.
Peering at a map of red dots, Michael Robinson became worried when he couldn’t locate AF1251, the last adult Mexican gray wolf of the Prieto pack, who was also a mother with a yearling.
Robinson, senior conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, was keeping an eye on the remaining two members of the Prieto pack after the alpha male of the pack and a pup had been killed by the federal Wildlife Services agents earlier this year. Wildlife Services is a secretive federal agency that offers predator removal services for ranchers.
The two wolf killings followed the removal of a total of seven pack members over the last two years. “I’d been very interested in what would happen to the Prieto pack after [that],” Robinson said.
The mapping tool, provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, tracks endangered Mexican gray wolves using radio collar data. The map is usually updated every two weeks, but amid the pandemic, the map hadn’t been updated in over a month. When it was finally updated this week, Robinson said he checked the numbers of each red dot on the map, hoping to locate the female.
In early November, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish formally rejoined the federal Mexican Wolf Recovery Program as a lead agency. The department signed a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to establish a framework for collaboration with Fish and Wildlife on the recovery program for the endangered animal. On November 14, just one week later, a Mexican gray wolf pup was caught and injured in a leghold trap that had been set in the Gila National Forest. A second wolf pup was later spotted \with a piece of another leghold trap still attached to its injured paw.
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Nine months earlier, four other wolves were caught in traps in the same area. One of those wolves died, while another had its leg amputated.
A lone male wolf loped across the sandy landscape of the Chihuahuan Desert under a waning January moon in 2017, heading north. The male, known as M1425, was a member of a small population of endangered Mexican gray wolves reintroduced into Mexico in 2012. The wolf was doing exactly what male wolves should be doing: exploring the landscape in search of new habitat, food sources and possibly even a mate. M1425 spent two nights exploring the new range before turning south and heading back to familiar territory. The journey north, which took the wolf across the U.S.-Mexico border, was encouraging to researchers who tracked the animal’s peregrinations by GPS collar.
Just a week after the announcement that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southwest Regional Director Benjamin Tuggle would be reassigned, the agency issued a notice saying it will give states the authority to decide where and when Mexican gray wolves can be released. Related story: Interior Department reorganization will hit New Mexico’s landscapes, communities
On Thursday, the agency released a draft revision to its Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan, which guides plans to remove the wolf from protection under the Endangered Species Act. Under the administration of Gov. Susana Martinez, New Mexico has opposed wolf reintroductions, and in 2011, the Game Commission ended the state’s participation in the program. The commission also voted to stop the federal government from releasing any new captive-raised wolves in the state and sued. A federal judge then blocked any new releases.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released its annual survey numbers for Mexican Gray Wolves in the Gila National Forest. As of the end of December, there were 113 wolves living in the recovery area, which includes areas in both New Mexico and Arizona. That’s an increase of 16 from the 2015 survey. In a statement, the agency’s southwest regional director Benjamin Tuggle said the goal is to achieve an annual growth rate of 10 percent. According to the survey, there are a total of 21 packs, with at least 50 wolves in New Mexico and 63 in Arizona.
A debate raged Wednesday among dozens of people outside the state Capitol over wolves versus ranchers. “More wolves,” shouted some people holding signs with slogans like “Free the Lobos.” Their supporters howled. “No wolves,” shouted another group, some wearing cowboy hats and holding signs that said, “Moove Over Wolves!” and “No More Lobos!”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced its latest round of funding to help ranchers affected by or living near wolves earlier this month. Nationwide, the grants amount to $900,000. One-third of that money will go toward projects in Arizona and New Mexico. The Fish and Wildlife Service’s Wolf Livestock Demonstration Grant Program offers two types of matching, competitive grants to states and tribes. One compensates livestock owners when wolves are proven to have killed their animals.
Despite the state Game Commission’s disapproval, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is planning on releasing some Mexican Gray Wolves in Southeastern New Mexico. The state Game Commission voted late last month to continue to deny a permit to the federal government for the release. The decision by the commission upheld the decision of a previous director. The proposed release is part of the Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Program which seeks to reintroduce the species that was nearly brought to extinction by the 1970s. The Santa Fe New Mexican first reported the news on the federal decision, citing a statement from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
ALBUQUERQUE – Scientists and wild animal advocates are calling on federal authorities to release at least five packs of Mexican gray wolves into New Mexico’s Gila National Forest to preserve the endangered species. Mary Katherine Ray, wildlife chair of the Rio Grande chapter of the Sierra Club, says the move is necessary to avoid inbreeding among the last 110 wolves living in the U.S.
She says scientists and 43 conservation organizations sent a sent a letter to U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell after state officials failed to act. “Actually, New Mexico has a law that requires the state to recover endangered species,” Ray points out. “And the gray wolf is a New Mexico state-listed endangered species, as well as a federally listed one.” Some ranchers and hunters maintain increasing the number of wolves in the Gila National Forest could lead to loss of livestock and elk.