ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) – Another year has passed and the effort
to return the endangered Mexican gray wolf to the Southwest is no
closer to marking success than when federal wildlife officials
first set out with their lofty goals decades ago.
But this year is going to be different. It’s going to be what
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southwest director Benjamin Tuggle
calls “a watershed year,” and at the top of his list is bringing
together scientists, conservationists, ranchers and others to
develop a much-needed roadmap for the wolf’s recovery.
“We have battled this demon a very long time and finally we’ve
gotten the go-ahead in a number of ways. It is my firm belief that
we’re going to make some significant progress,” Tuggle told The
Associated Press in an interview.
The effort to return the wolves to the wild in New Mexico and
Arizona has been hampered by illegal shootings, court battles,
complaints from ranchers who have lost livestock and pets to the
wolves, and concerns by environmentalists over the way the
reintroduction program has been managed.
In 2010, there were six wolf deaths. All but one involved
Two lawsuits were filed – one by conservationists and the other
by ranching groups and two southern New Mexico counties.
A few New Mexico lawmakers pushed unsuccessfully to get state
game officials to help reduce conflicts between wolves and
livestock, and a dozen congressional lawmakers requested that
federal officials make changes in the program and consider
releasing more wolves into the wild.
The goal this year, Tuggle said, will be finding balance between
science and the impact of management actions on people in the
region. That balance has eluded the program since the federal
government began releasing Mexican wolves along the Arizona-New
Mexico border in 1998.
“It’s not going to be easy,” Tuggle said. “You’ve got these
divergent groups that are very opinionated.”
The Mexican gray wolf, a subspecies of the gray wolf, once
roamed New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and Mexico. As more people began
to settle in the Southwest, conflict arose between the wolves,
people and livestock. Hunting and government-sponsored
extermination campaigns all but wiped out the wolf.
The wolf was added to the federal endangered species list in
1976 and a captive-breeding program was started. A recovery plan
was adopted in 1982 and the first 11 wolves were released in March
Biologists had hoped to have more than 100 wolves in the wild by
2006. At the beginning of 2010, the count was 42.
With the annual wolf survey starting in less than two weeks,
wildlife managers hope they can spot more wolves on the snowy
landscape. There’s hope since pups were spotted with a few packs
during the fall.
The survey involves a spotter plane, a helicopter, radio
telemetry equipment and ground support.
“The thing that helps us get a really accurate number is the
fact that we have a lot of collared wolves compared to the total
number of wolves on the ground. Being that wolves are pack animals,
it’s pretty easy to find them,” said Wally Murphy, a Fish and
Wildlife Service supervisor in New Mexico.
Neither Murphy nor Tuggle wanted to venture a guess at how many
wolves might be out there.
“We expect it will improve,” Murphy said. “How much it will
improve is yet to be seen.”
Aside from the count, the focus this year is on releasing more
captive wolves, finding more money for an interdiction fund to help
ranchers with livestock depredations and developing a new recovery
A team of scientists, state and federal wildlife managers,
tribal officials and other stakeholders is being assembled to hash
out details of the plan. The first meeting is expected in February,
and Tuggle hopes to have a plan ready for public review in a
Eva Lee Sargent of the group Defenders of Wildlife said she
believes more people would be willing to get on board if the
recovery goals – and the means to getting there – were clearly
“What the program really needs is to be based on science and
not based on the squeaky wheel and politics,” she said.
Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle
Growers’ Association, said her group appreciates what Tuggle is
trying to do but finding middle ground will be difficult if
environmentalists continue to push for establishing wolf
populations in more areas and bringing an end to grazing permits on
national forest land.
Cowan said the balance between having wolves in the wild and
ranchers continuing with their livelihood will not come down to a
number, but rather to how the wolves are managed.
“We live with other predators. There are coyotes out there,
there are bears, there are lions, but we’re able to manage them and
we certainly have not extirpated all of those predators. But when
you find an offending one, you have to have the ability to deal
with it,” she said. “That’s the frustration with the wolf
Cowan and Sargent said fixing the problems will take more than a
year, but everyone is willing to try.
Tuggle acknowledges that mistakes have been made, but he said
officials are learning from them.
Tuggle remembers the first time he saw a Mexican gray wolf. It
was in a captive facility. He said could imagine that animal
roaming the Gila National Forest or somewhere else.
“I’ve heard wolves in the wild, I’ve seen them in the wild, and
I have a full appreciation of that species and the charismatic
nature of that species and that’s what really motivates me in terms
of the Mexican gray wolf. I see the potential of what this species
can be on the landscape.”