Monday, February 25, 2013

Crying Wolf

Crisis in the Southwest
Crying Wolf
When local government input is invited
By Stephen L. Wilmeth

            Charles Goodnight is an extraordinarily interesting historical figure.
            In the annals of Texas history, he sits among the most elite cattlemen, and, yet, he may have been an even better naturalist. If his life is studied before 1864, the impact wild Texas had on him was profound. He lived not just by wits, but by an innate aptitude of observation which then reflected his actions.
When the early horsemen (of which he was among the best) ventured into the wilderness of west Texas, the multifaceted dangers they faced were not just hostile Indians. If anything, the immensity of the land and the scarcity of water humbled every being. When remedies for maintaining oral moisture for days without water become conversation, something beyond endurance enters the fray.
When I stumbled onto his words describing wilderness in the presence of wolves, I was riveted. He described how the observant could discern the presence of wolves without paying attention to dust on the horizon indicating buffalo. The presence of wolves was always associated with the absence of rabbits. They killed them.
They killed them all.
New Mexico history
New Mexico placed a bounty on wolves in 1918. The bounty came from two pressing issues. The first was predation of the livestock industry and the other was something mostly forgotten in time … the dread of deadly disease transmission.
For those of us born in the ‘50s and before, many have memory of rabies beyond the lasting and debilitating punishment we endured when our parents hauled us to see the so called family friendly Disney production of Ol’ Yeller.
Mine was a rabid bobcat that came into the office trailer with Charlie Reeves at the Gila Cliff Dwellings’ trailhead. That was the first time I experienced the flawed reasoning of something yet undefined, environmentalism. A woman had to undergo rabies treatment because the ranking Park Service official refused to take the advice of a state policeman, a game warden, a Forest Service GDA, a trained biologist, and a bunch of us mere kids. He gave the diseased animal its freedom and shortly thereafter it attacked the unsuspecting woman. She never knew the animal had been trapped in the trailer, observed, declared a problem, and released. The lab results would eventually reveal the worst of all outcomes. The NPS official never faced a single consequence for his actions. He suppressed the truth.
The economics of wolves is another matter. Converted to 2007 dollars, the State of New Mexico estimated that the wolves within its borders in 1918 were causing $960,000 of loss per year. This is where the comparison of then and today becomes more interesting. The state estimated the resident wolves within its administrative boundaries at that time numbered between 40 and 50 animals. That compares to a collared population today of between 59 and 78 wolves in the recovery area of eastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico.
The wolves of 1918 were scattered over 121,500 square miles while the admitted collared wolves of today are scattered over a supposed 5,000 square miles. That equates to a density of one wolf per 2430 sections of land in 1918, and an astounding one wolf in 64 square miles in the modern day defined recovery area. If wolves were an economic nuisance in the 1918 density, can the concentration calamity of the wolves today be comprehended?
In the collection of data running up to the 1918 offering of bounties, one wolf was known to have killed 25 head of cattle in a two month period and another was credited with 150 cattle in a six month period. If the latter rate of kill had been sustained on an annualized basis, it would equate to nearly $300,000 of cattle kills in 2013 cattle markets. That is a serious number, and, yet, indications are growing the Gila is sustaining similar atrocities.
In the six month period ending in November, 2012, at least six adult elk were known to have been killed on I10 between Deming and Lordsburg, New Mexico. What is odd about that? The area between Lordsburg and Deming is desert grasslands and sixty miles south from the elk country of the Gila and wolf recovery. Just before the end of the year, a six by six bull elk was spotted standing in mesquites on the south side of I10 at Red Mountain. The elk that are surviving are dispersing and desert environs are more alluring than the killing zone of the recovery area.
Yet another indicator is the hunting grounds now being occupied by a Gila guide. He no longer hunts in the Mogollons. He guides clients in the area south of Mule Creek in country that prior to the two decades ago hadn’t seen an elk since the Merriam subspecies was eliminated in the 19th century.
It is little wonder that truck loads of horse meat sausages, sourced in Mexico by US Fish and Wildlife (USFWS), are being required to maintain the existence of the project wolves. It is a starving, bloody comedy of imagination and errors that is only growing in hostilities and contempt for the agencies involved.
When the USFWS posted the intent to expand the recovery area into the length and breadth of all of New Mexico and Arizona and into a big swath of west Texas, those that read the announcement in the Federal Register blinked. What was the genesis of such a grand scheme and who made the decision?
As the document outlining the management plan was studied it became apparent a dictionary in double speak was needed. The reference to the Mexican gray wolf, Canis lupus baileyi was curtailed and Canis lupus, the gray wolf in generic form, was elevated. It was noted the plan did not intend to address the release of ‘captive bred wolves’ into the expansion area, but it did not preclude widespread translocation of problem wolves.
The prevailing theme was the region should not just expect, but will have increases of wolf numbers. The expansion apparently needs a management plan. Comments from local government were invited, and …the comments swirled in abundance.  
 Western … and Eastward Ho the (meat) wagons!
The response from local government across Arizona, New Mexico and Texas demonstrated such pent up and wide spread disagreement and disenchantment with the expansion the USFWS conceded and withdrew the proposed action. In a letter to New Mexico’s Colfax County, their decision was made known.
The following week, the County Commission of Arizona’s Apache County held a public meeting in Alpine on the matter. A standing room only crowd heard presenters from all three states voice opposition to any expansion and continuing frustration over the current reintroduction area. USFWS had Mexican Wolf Recovery Coordinator, Sheryl Barrett, in attendance. She declined to say anything.
The matter of double speak reappeared, though, in assessing exactly what the agency implied in the letter terminating the action. That was answered with a response from the agency’s spokesman Jonathan Olson when he acknowledged the action taken only applied to the decision to terminate the solicitation of additional local government comments. There was no intention of curtailing the planned expansion of the management area!
Therein the matter of local government again emerges as an issue of vital importance. If the agency interprets legislative requirements of working with local government to be confined to commenting on foregone decisions, those officials must realize there is a tsunami of disagreement forming across the expansion area.  
Working with local government and local land use plans is not arbitrary nor is it optional. It is one of the pillars of promise western states had in the passage of the environmental passion laws. Local government shall be part of the process … local government is not subservient to federal agencies.
It is past time to reassess the wolf recovery project. There was not a habitat or prey assessment done in the newest expansion decision, but that isn’t without precedent. There wasn’t one done in the original plan, either. In fact, if the project is studied there is a nagging realization that impetus for the project was simply the presence of the Gila, the so called ‘Yellowstone of the south’.
Prey and habitat studies will reveal the two diverse federal holdings share similarity only in size. To those who really know the Gila-Apache Blue Range Recovery Area, the decision to load 100 collared wolves into that footprint was purely arbitrary. The project failure has always reflected the absence of an adequate prey base.
History strongly supports that premise. If 40-50 wolves across the entire state of New Mexico a hundred years ago posed an economic calamity that resulted in bounties, what is the true impact of the … environmental calamity … the region now endures?

Stephen L. Wilmeth is a rancher from southern New Mexico. “A congressional hearing within the expanded recovery area is necessary. The entire program must be reassessed.”

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