Feds push Game Commission to allow Mexican gray wolf releases

Wildlife supporters hold a rally last week at the Santa Fe Community College to urge the State Game Commission to support the federal government’s release of Mexican gray wolves in the Gila National Forest. Clyde Mueller/New Mexican file photo

Federal biologists count 110 Mexican gray wolves now on the New Mexico and Arizona landscape — just above an initial target set three decades ago under a recovery plan for the species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says it is “imperative” to continue releasing captive wolves to increase genetic diversity among the wild population, but it is an effort state officials have stalled.

As demonstrators rallied outside in favor of wolves and other predators last week at the Santa Fe Community College, a Fish and Wildlife official addressed the State Game Commission about the issue during a public meeting. Joy Nicholopoulos, the deputy regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Southwest Office, told commissioners that boosting the wolf population is necessary to protect the endangered species’ long-term health. She also said the agency is “exploring alternatives to the state’s current resistance to wolf releases.”

Nicholopoulos was referring to a decision in June by New Mexico Game and Fish Department Director Alexa Sandoval to deny two applications from the federal agency for permits to release up to 10 captive Mexican wolves in the Gila National Forest.

The agency had requested a reversal of Sandoval’s decision, saying it was arbitrary and capricious. But on Thursday, the State Game Commission, appointed by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, delayed a vote on the appeal. The panel will take the issue up again Sept. 29.

An attorney for the department said Sandoval was following state regulations in denying the permits.

Wolf advocates and environmentalists say the permit denials are one more example of a State Game Commission and game department that have predators in the cross-hairs.

Commissioners in May also denied a captive wolf facility permit sought by the Ladder Ranch Wolf Management Facility, owned by media mogul and conservationist Ted Turner near Truth or Consequences. Ladder Ranch has worked with the Mexican wolf recovery program since 1998, helping to acclimate captive wolves before they are released to the wild.

In January, the Fish and Wildlife Service released a final rule for Mexican wolf management in New Mexico and Arizona. The rule expands the captive wolf release area and further defines the circumstances under which an endangered wolf can be removed or killed for bothering livestock, domestic dogs, and wild elk and deer herds.

The federal agency is working to revise its 33-year-old wolf recovery plan by the end of 2017.

“Our desire is to work with the state toward the recovery of the Mexican gray wolf,” Nicholopoulos told the state game commissioners. “… We aim to increase the wolf population and aim to improve genetic diversity. We plan to continue our path forward.”

But commissioners want Fish and Wildlife to provide more information about how increased wolf populations will affect deer and elk populations in the area.

“I think if we exceed these numbers or even double the population, we’re going to see severe impacts on the ungulate [elk and deer] population,” said Commissioner Ralph Ramos, a member of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and a hunting guide.

Mexican gray wolves once ranged widely in the Southwestern United States and Mexico. By the late 1970s, biologists considered them extinct in New Mexico and Arizona.

The two states’ game departments worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to establish a recovery plan in 1982, which sought to put up to 100 wolves back in the wild.

The process was slow and has suffered setbacks — federal officials said one wolf released into the wild was shot and killed in May because it had habituated to humans. Between 2010 and 2014, however, the wild Mexican wolf population doubled to 100 animals within the federally established Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area of southwestern New Mexico and eastern Arizona.

“The 100 number was not a goal,” Nicholopoulos told commissioners last week. “It was a stopgap measure to keep them from going extinct.”

When federal and state game officials first suggested getting the population of wolves to 100, the blowback from ranchers in New Mexico’s Catron County, the heart of the wolf recovery program, was instant and hard, said David Parsons, a former Fish and Wildlife biologist who served as one of the early wolf program coordinators. Parsons now is a die-hard advocate for the wolves and coyotes. He said if the agency suggested more than 100 wolves, he believes ranchers would have rioted.

Now, he said, public opinion has swayed heavily in favor of increasing the number of wolves in the wild, despite the continued opposition from ranchers and some hunters.

Contact Staci Matlock at 986-3055 or smatlock@sfnewmexican.com. Follow her on Twitter @StaciMatlock.

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