Between two wolves

Taos News (Original) Posted March 23, 2022 by Geoffrey Plant

Taos County could become a meeting place for two species of gray wolf

Northern New Mexico may be sandwiched between two ongoing wolf reintroduction programs, and while Taos County residents probably won’t hear these animals howling any time soon, scientists have found the region would provide a suitable habitat for Mexican gray wolves and support connectivity to other wolf populations.

Meanwhile, howling among ranchers, government agencies and environmental groups who supported the Mexican gray wolf reintroduction program in southwest New Mexico and eastern Arizona — where wolves have come into conflict with cattle — might be a little quieter in Taos County, if comments made at a Taos Soil and Water Conservation meeting last month are any indication.

James Wanstall, natural resource specialist with the New Mexico Department of Agriculture in Las Cruces, is working alongside several agencies to streamline the process for ranchers to receive compensation for cattle depredations, or payment for cattle that are killed by wolves. He noted that cattle depredation by wolves “is not just a problem in the Gila [National Forest],” where the wolf reintroductions began, but said it also affects ranchers in the Cibola National Forest.

“If you're going to have wolves on the landscape and there's a taking, then just reimburse me for this gol dang thing and let's move on — just make me whole,” Wanstall said. “There's ranchers losing five, six, seven head of cattle in a two-week period. This time of year, they’re losing pregnant females.”

As of the most recent report in October, the Mexican Wolf Interagency Field team had counted 95 confirmed cattle kills last year by wolves in New Mexico and Arizona, and three probable kills.

Wanstall said it can take up to two years for a rancher to get what some feel is too little monetary compensation — $900 for calves, $1,550 for cows, $3,500 for bulls and $1,100 for yearlings — after a confirmed wolf depredation, factors that add to the animus many ranchers already feel toward wolves. But, he added, “let's figure out how to work together instead of screaming at each other. Let's figure it out.”

Gray wolves

To the north of Taos County, a slim majority of Colorado voters approved a statewide ballot measure in 2020 that required the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission to develop and implement a restoration and management plan for gray wolves on “designated lands” within the state. A spokesperson said the commission is currently tracking a pack of eight gray wolves in Jackson County on the Colorado-Wyoming border, but added that the agency “cannot definitely say how many wolves are on the landscape.”

“Proposition 114 — now state statute 33-2-105.8 — directs CPW to ‘take the steps necessary to begin reintroduction of gray wolves by December 31, 2023 only on 'designated lands,' ” the spokesperson said. “‘Designated lands’ are defined in the statute as those lands west of the Continental Divide in Colorado that the commission determines are consistent with its plan to restore and manage gray wolves. However, it is not expected that wolves will stay within a specific boundary.

“Wolves are capable of traveling long distances,” the spokesperson added, noting the ambulation of one of the adult wolves in the Jackson County pack, both of which are fitted with radio collars. “F1084, the first naturally migrating wolf in Jackson County, is known to have migrated to Colorado from the Snake River Pack in Wyoming in 2019.”

Mexican gray wolves

Mexican gray wolves in the U.S. are not permitted outside the boundaries of the Mexican Wolf Experimental Population Area, the northern boundary of which extends along Interstate-40 from Clines Corners to just east of Kingman, Ariz. Under the current management rule, any Mexican wolf that migrates north of I-40 must be returned to the designated area below the interstate, as occurred last year with a Mexican wolf named Anubis that was captured north of Flagstaff.

In the lead-up to a July 1 deadline for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to deliver its revision of the rule that guides the reintroduction and management of Mexican gray wolves in southwest New Mexico and eastern Arizona, soil and water conservation districts across the state, along with environmental groups, individuals and business owners, have submitted copious public comments on the agency’s proposed rule changes.

Carolyn Nelson, a Catron County rancher, has said for years that wolves threaten her family’s way of life.

“We want to continue to work out here,” she said during a Dec. 8 virtual public hearing on the proposed rule revision. “We don't want to be put out of business and have to move to town.”

Ranching communities are protesting the proposed revised rule’s tighter restrictions on the issuance of permits for lethal removals of Mexican wolves in specific situations, but environmental groups say the proposed changes don’t go far enough when it comes to the subspecies’ genetic diversity — an area in which migration plays an important role.

While the rule’s population cap of 320 Mexican wolves is proposed to be lifted, the permissible geographical territory for Mexican gray wolves won’t be expanded under the rule revision.

At the Dec. 8 hearing, Emily Renn, a wildlife biologist and executive director of the Grand Canyon Wolf Recovery Project, pointed out that the 2018 federal court order requiring Fish and Wildlife to revise the wolf management rule “mentions migration or some variation of that word 12 times in 44 pages," while the draft environmental impact study related to the rule revision “only mentions migration one time in 229 pages.”

“Likewise, migration is only mentioned one time in the advanced copy of the proposed rule,” Renn continued. She added that “although Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledges that territory north of I-40 will likely be required for future recovery and recognized the importance of natural disbursal and expanding the species range, it nevertheless imposed a hard limit on disbursal north of I-40.”

That stance will almost certainly land Fish and Wildlife back in federal court once the current proposed revised rule is finalized, said Michael Robinson, senior conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity. He pointed to the findings of a 2018 federal court judgment stating that the Fish and Wildlife Service ignored science when it issued an earlier rule revision in 2015, and ordered the agency to reconsider it.

The judge found that the Fish and Wildlife Service “misinterpreted” scientific studies relating to migration and population, and confirmed that scientists “conclude that the effective migration rate and population size in the 2015 rule are insufficient to ensure the long-term viability of the species.”

Still, while acknowledging that “Mexican wolves have, and will likely continue to disperse north of I-40 on occasion,” an agency spokesperson told the Taos News that “The [Fish and Wildlife] Service and Mexico have determined that recovery can be achieved in the areas of Arizona and New Mexico south of Interstate-40, and Mexico.”

Mexican gray wolf advocates, wildlife biologists and the agricultural community recognize that a successful recovery isn’t just about population numbers, but would also be characterized by natural dispersal, migration and habitat connectivity.

In the middle

Taos Conservation District Supervisor George Long responded to Wanstall’s comments about Mexican wolf depredations becoming more common near Socorro and below Grants by saying that “wolves are also going to be moving down from Colorado,” painting Taos County as the future meeting place for two subspecies of gray wolf.

A spokesperson for the Fish and Wildlife Service said that Long could be on to something.

“Interbreeding between the two subspecies is expected to occur in areas where they overlap,” the spokesperson said, adding that it’s too soon to predict how or when interbreeding could take place in the wild.

Allowing Mexican gray wolves to inhabit north-central New Mexico would help restore genetic diversity to the Mexican population, all 186 known members of which in the United States are descended from just seven wolves rescued when the subspecies was on the brink of extinction in the late 1970s. There are 45 Mexican gray wolves known to be living in the wild in Sonora, Mexico, but they are segregated by the metal bollard border wall.

Due to a variety of factors, the very limited founding genetic material has since been reduced to the diversity equivalent of two of the original animals, Robinson said. He explained that scientists have identified three areas where Mexican gray wolves — and their genetic diversity — could thrive.

“One of them is in the current wolf population area of the Gila and Apache-Sitgreaves national forests and the Fort Apache reservation, another was the Grand Canyon region, including the North Rim and the South Rim, and the third was the southern Rocky Mountains, including the area around Taos and extending into southern Colorado,” Robinson said.

“The upshot from that is that, even though it’s my view that the Mexican gray wolf didn’t live in Northern New Mexico, there were closely-related wolves, like the southern Rocky Mountain wolf, that did live there. And this is a place where they could recover, including the very important genetic restoration they need,” he said. “That’s why we have proposed that Mexican wolves be introduced in southern Colorado.”

Colorado Parks and Wildlife said it doesn't have any authority over that decision.

“We are focused on the fulfillment of the requirements that we have under state statute, and management of wildlife in Colorado,” the agency spokesperson said, adding that the commission “has no management authority of any species in the state of New Mexico.”

"The plan being developed by CPW staff takes into account the status of the Mexican gray wolf in planning for release locations," the Commission spokesperson said. "Ultimately, any plan developed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife will be approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who has management authority of all wolf species in the state."

The Fish and Wildlife Service said it’s too soon to know how the two programs in New Mexico and Colorado might interact and cooperate moving forward.

“Mexican wolves and the wolves that Colorado chooses to utilize are part of the same species (Canis lupus), but may be different subspecies,” the spokesperson said. “Both subspecies fill the same ecological role — predation of large ungulates like elk — but Mexican wolves are smaller (50-90 pounds) relative to more northern subspecies (80-130 pounds).

“The Service has been in contact with Colorado Parks and Wildlife regarding their wolf reintroduction plans,” the Fish and Wildlife Service spokesperson continued. “The impacts of wolves released in Colorado on Mexican wolves will depend on a host of factors, including: the success of the Colorado reintroduction, where Colorado chooses to release wolves, what subspecies Colorado chooses to utilize, dispersal patterns of wolves in Colorado, the size of the Mexican wolf population when the two populations interact, and many others. Once Colorado Parks & Wildlife has a final plan in place, the Service will be able to evaluate management options to ensure recovery of Mexican wolves continues within the Mexican Wolf Experimental Population Area.”