Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Feds to introduce more wolves this summer

Written by Benjamin Fisher on March 1, 2016 The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provided an update on the controversial Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Program to attendees at the sixth annual Natural History of the Gila Symposium — an update that told a story of poor genetic diversity and a small drop in numbers. The agency’s representative also revealed plans for more wolf reintroductions into the Gila National Forest in coming months. The recovery program has seen fair progress in recent years, with the population growing steadily to more than 100 wolves in Arizona and New Mexico. But with several deaths reported in the annual population survey — including two after being hit by tranquilizers during the survey itself — the species saw a decline this year to 97 documented specimens. According to changes made to the recovery plan in 2014, the FWS plans to reintroduce several more captive-raised specimens into the wild this year. The changes to the plan expand the possible reintroduction areas to anywhere between Interstate 40 and the U.S./Mexico border in Arizona and New Mexico. That, of course, includes the Gila National Forest here in Grant County. The wolf recovery program has seen major opposition from several demographics since its inception in the late 1970s. The ranching and herding communities especially have long claimed the reintroduction and recovery of the Mexican gray wolf is an attack on their livelihood, and have decried the program as potentially dangerous. These groups were predictably upset by the expansion of the reintroduction area. But the plan goes on. Recovery Plan Field Team Leader Kent Laudon said at the symposium that the expansion and planned releases are necessary for the wolf’s survival as a species. “You can’t just keep putting wolves on top of wolves,” he said. “At some point they have to spread out.” The reintroductions will also help broaden the genetic diversity of the wolves, which is understandably low since they all derive from the same seven original wolves. “They’re like a bunch of brothers and sisters running around,” Laudon said. “We have to keep inserting more genetically interesting wolves to help with that diversity.” No specific dates have been set for the reintroductions this summer because some of the wolves set for release are pups that haven’t been born yet. This fostering approach to reintroduction has only been attempted once with Mexican gray wolves and was not a huge success. Laudon expressed optimism for the plan, however, saying it is based on a program from the Appalachian Mountain region involving red wolves that worked well. In any case, the pups will have to be released shortly after their birth so it is anyone’s guess when they will arrive. Laudon also spoke to the prickly relationship between the wolves and the ranching community. He said that most of the problems between wolves and cows or sheep could be avoided with the alteration of the unique and long-practiced ranching methods in the region. He said the type of year-round grazing done on the public lands here is “done almost nowhere else,” and causes more interaction between livestock and predators. “Wolves here are in and among livestock all the time,” Laudon said. “Sometimes they screw up.” Opponents to the recovery plan aren’t restricted to private-sector ranchers, though. The FWS also recently bumped heads with the New Mexico State Game Commission, which denied their permit to release wolves within the state. Since FWS is a federal agency, it turns out their request for the state’s permission was actually just polite. “We actually don’t need their permit,” Laudon said. “But we have internal protocols to try and work with state agencies when we can. We basically had to say thanks but no thanks and go ahead.” As usually occurs at any presentation about the recovery plan, a member of the audience at the symposium asked Laudon about rumors of coyote hybridization within the population. Laudon claimed, however, that there have been no known cases among Mexican gray wolves. Benjamin Fisher may be reached at ben@scdailypress.com.

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