Survey shows support for Mexican gray wolf
New Mexico Independent (original) 06.17.08 | 5:00 am
ALBUQUERQUE — A large majority of New Mexico voters support reintroducing the Mexican gray wolf, according to a statewide poll released Monday. Nearly three in four New Mexicans, or 70 percent of registered voters, said they favored the embattled program, compared to only 21 percent who opposed it.
Until the 1970s, when hunting and poisoning effort brought them to the brink of extinction, Mexican gray wolves roamed the Southwest. Reintroduction of the Mexican subspecies into the Southwest was slow, as a captive breeding program was developed. On March 29, 1998 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released 11 captive-bred Mexican gray wolves into the Apache and Gila national forests of New Mexico and Arizona.
More wolves have been released every year, but the population still is below the target size of 100 wolves and 18 breeding pairs, a benchmark advocates had hoped to reach by 2006. Today there are only 52 wolves and three breeding pairs, a population that is lower today than it was four years ago.
While the poll showed broad support for the program, conservationists say it is in danger of failure because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has prioritized the concerns of ranchers over the needs of wolves.
And those conservationists are hoping the survey results will give them ammunition to persuade elected officials to work harder to protect the wolves—even if lawsuits filed earlier this year fail.
Monday’s poll results show that 57 percent of New Mexico voters support giving wolves “more protection under the Endangered Species Act to ensure their population rebounds;” while only 25 percent opposed more protection.
The New Mexico Audubon Society, Arizona Zoological Society and the Southwest Environmental Law Center commissioned the recent public opinion survey by Research & Polling Inc., which surveyed 500 registered voters in April and May 2008. The survey had a margin of error of 4.4 percent.
Many ranchers oppose reintroduction
But not everyone thinks the reintroduction program is such a good idea for New Mexico — or for ranching. Opponents describe wolves are nefarious predators that threaten people’s livelihoods and even endanger humans.
Besides, the needs of people over the needs of an endangered species is exactly the way it should be, say some in rural New Mexico. “I feel very strongly that humans are more important than animals,” said Loren Cushman, the Superintendent of the Reserve Independent Schools and an outspoken critic of the wolf program. “[Animals are] here for our pleasure and our use and not the other way around.”
Rural Catron and Grants Counties, the areas nearest the reintroduction areas, are dominated by ranching, and many cattle-growing families say that wolves have cost them a lot of money. Under federal rules, it is legal to kill a wolf that is threatening human life or attacking cattle, sheep or horses on private land—but not on the public land. Approximately 95 percent of the reintroduction area is public land, much of which is leased by ranchers to graze their cattle.
There is a program in place to reimburse ranchers for cattle that are proven to have been killed by wolves, but that proof can be difficult to achieve, especially in remote areas where a carcass may not be found for days or weeks.
“The problem is that they have confirmed and paid on 70 [head of cattle killed by wolves] but we’ve lost over 1,500 head since the reintroduction,” Ed Wehrheim, Chairman of the Catron County Commission and a former rancher told The Independent. “I can tell you several ranchers who are going out of business because of this wolf. They’re going to sell their land to developers.”
Dave Parsons, a former Mexican gray wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who is now a fellow with the Rewilding Institute, said that it is “almost certainly the case” that there are more cattle killed by wolves than are presently being accounted for. But he doesn’t think removing the wolves is the right solution to that problem. In response, he pointed to one of the poll’s findings: 72 percent of respondents said they prefer “helping ranchers prevent or reduce conflict with wolves” over “removing and killing wolves that come into conflict with livestock,” a method preferred by only 18 percent of respondents.
Rural residents fear for safety of children, pets
Some people who live near the wolves say they are genuinely afraid of the animals, which weigh anywhere from 50 to 80 pounds and stand from 28 to 32 inches tall at the shoulder, about the size of a German shepherd.
Residents complain that the wolves have terrorized their families by brutally attacking, even killing family pets; some claim that they’ve been threatened or followed by wolves, although there have been no attacks.
According to the wildlife service rules, it is illegal to kill a wolf if it is attacking family pet, even if it’s on private land. The penalty for violating these rules is imprisonment of not more than one year and a combination of criminal and civil fines of up to $75,000.
“Although they haven’t actually attacked a person, it’s a real possibility that they will,” Wehrheim said. “The problem with the reintroduction is that …you can’t protect yourself. Suppose you saved all your life and bought a house in the mountains. Then wolves started coming around and ate your pets and you couldn’t go outside, so you called Fish and Wildlife and they wouldn’t do anything. How would you feel?”
Speaking about the study on a conference call with reporters Monday, Parsons, the former wildlife service wolf recovery coordinator, was careful to choose his words when asked about the fear felt by residents near the reintroduction area. “I’m not suggesting that those fears aren’t real, but they’re not really supported by the larger body of evidence. As to whether wolves pose a threat to humans, the evidence suggests they don’t.”
“They do definitely pose a real danger to both animals and humans,” argued Cushman, the Reserve Independent Schools superintendent. After reports that a wolf followed local school children home one day, he supervised the building of three wooden shelters near school bus stops. “People keep calling them wolf shelters, but these are just bus stop shelters,” he said, but added “Whether it’s for the physical well-being of the kids or the psychological aspect, they can get inside that shelter if they feel threatened by that animal, until someone comes by.”
Conflict simmers over how to handle wolves
Last year the service killed or removed 20 wolves under Standard Operating Procedure 13 (SOP 13), a rule adopted by the Mexican Wolf Adaptive Management Oversight Committee that states “Wolves known or likely to have committed three depredation incidents within a period of 365 days shall be permanently removed from the wild as expeditiously as possible.”
Conservation activists complain that the Fish and Wildlife Service continues to order trapping and shooting as the primary method of dealing with problems that arise between ranchers and wolves, when they should be considering alternative methods. “There are a lot of things that could be done differently that would offer [wolves] more protection and reduce conflict,” Parsons said. “But we don’t see the agency putting much effort into that.”
In April 2008, two New Mexico conservation groups, Wild Earth Guardians and the Rewilding Institute, and nearly a dozen Arizona groups including the Sierra Club Defenders of Wildlife, the Western Environmental Law Center, filed two suits attempting to force the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to work harder on wolf recovery and rescind SOP 13, known as the three-strikes rule.
Lawmakers battle over details of the plan
So far, the polarization seen between the ranching community and conservationists has been paralleled by disagreements among elected officials. In July 2007, Governor Bill Richardson sided with conservationists, calling for the suspension of SOP 13, saying “Changes must be made to the protocol for the wolf re-introduction program.”
Rep. Tom Udall, who is running for U.S. Senate, has been careful in his language. In January, Udall told Socorro County’s El Defensor Chieftain “he wants to work with all stakeholders to agree on a plan and said federal agencies struggling with the situation may need more representative intervention.”
Rep. Steve Pearce, who also is running for U.S. Senate and whose district covers the reintroduction area, has been particularly sensitive to his constituents’ concerns about the wolves. That has made him popular in the southern part of the state, but some say Pearce has gone too far in his support of ranchers against the wolves.
In May, Parsons, the former wildlife servicev wolf program manager, testified at a US House Natural Resources Committee oversight hearing on political interference in the endangered species programs. (The committee had begun investigating charges of political interference in 2006, when it was revealed that Bush appointee Julie MacDonald, then Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, had reversed scientific findings, given government documents to lobbyists and edited scientific documents to distort the findings.)In his testimony, Parsons told the committee that the recovery program was in danger of failure:
It is my professional opinion that the FWS and its cooperating agencies are prioritizing wolf control over wolf recovery of the endangered Mexican gray wolf to the point of threatening the second extirpation of the Mexican wolf in the wild; ultimately, this may result in the complete extinction of the Mexican wolf since the captive-breeding program is intended as a temporary measure to achieve recovery in the wild.
He also testified that Rep. Steve Pearce interfered in management processes:
On February 12, 2005, Congressman Steve Pearce (NM) convened two meetings, in Glenwood and Socorro, New Mexico, to hear constituents’ concerns about Mexican wolf recovery efforts in New Mexico. Invited participants were primarily members or supporters of the livestock industry in New Mexico. At the Congressman’s request, senior staff from FWS’s Southwest Region attended the meetings. Conservation stakeholders’ requests for similar access to FWS officials through formal public hearings were denied.
A phone call to Rep. Pearce’s office seeking comment on this story was not returned.
Solutions remain unclear
Solutions to the conflict over wolves in New Mexico don’t seem clear. As the poll found, those who know more about the wolf reintroduction program have stronger feelings—positive and negative—than those who say they don’t know much.
“I think the only solution to the wolf problem is just completely do away with the program,” Wehrheim said. Referring to the cost of the reintroduction program, he said, “Just think of what we could have done in this county with that much money. This county is lacking in health care, in emergency services, schools. Don’t you think that’s kind of ridiculous to spend that much money to reintroduce a predator?”
At this point, it’s the capture and killing of the wolves that’s costing a lot of money, Parsons says. “One [operation] involved two aircraft, three vehicles and around a half dozen government employees, and it went on for four days—now that’s expensive,” he said. “What would happen if you took all the money that was spent on controlling and trapping wolves and used it to explore these other methods, proactive programs to address conflict in ways that don’t require wolves to be removed?”
Besides, Parsons said, “It’s important to keep in mind that the backyard we’re talking about is federal public lands that belong to all the public. Granted people who live in the area should be high on the list, but we can’t lose sight of the fact that these public lands belong to all Americans.”
That would be fine with Wehrheim. “If the program has to say, let them turn lose as many wolves as they want to, and let people shoot them,” he said, explaining: “There’s no difference between a wolf and a burglar trying to break into your house and hurt you. I wouldn’t hesitate a second to shoot him. We shoot coyotes like crazy out here and there’s plenty of them.”