Ladder Ranch wolf program resumes with state’s OK

State officials have approved the transfer of five Mexican gray wolves from Washington state to Ted Turner’s Ladder Ranch in southern New Mexico — on the condition that the animals eventually be released in Mexico. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service file photo

The State Game Commission on Friday approved the transfer of five Mexican gray wolves from Washington state to Ted Turner’s Ladder Ranch in Southern New Mexico, an action that activists say represents a shift in the commission’s policy and may lead to the release of more of the endangered wolves in the state.

The Ladder Ranch wolves, however, will be released to the wild in Mexico.

The seven-member State Game Commission’s unanimous decision comes just over a month after it denied a request from the ranch — also unanimously — to renew a permit to import and house Mexican gray wolves and prepare them for release in the wild, which the ranch had been doing for the past 17 years.

The ranch had suspended its wolf program for 14 months, giving the commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service time to debate the future of the federal Mexican gray wolf reintroduction program. In its opposition to more wolf releases, the commission cited an out-of-date federal management plan and a lack of new science to back the program.

When the Ladder Ranch permit renewal was denied in January, however, state game commissioners said they were “not against wolves. We want to manage them.”

Mike Phillips, executive director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund, said he took the commission at its word and immediately filed an amended request to import wolves.

“The commissioners indicated they saw a way forward. We acted on that hope, and the director said, ‘Yes,’ ” Phillips said Friday.

Commissioners did not respond to requests for comment Friday.

The Ladder Ranch was permitted to bring in the first Mexican wolf earlier this month. Phillips expects to see the additional wolves arrive from Washington by the end of next week.

The wolves eventually will be taken to the Rancho la Mesa refuge in Mexico, before being released in the Mexican wild.

Phillips said the plan to release the wolves in Mexico — rather than in New Mexico or Arizona, where ranchers have raised objections — might have helped sway the commission.

“It’s the beginning of us moving back to where we were,” Phillips said of the ranch’s role in the wolf reintroduction effort. “We were a very useful facility.”

Michael Dax, an outreach coordinator with Defenders of Wildlife, said his group was supportive of the permit agreement between the commission and the ranch. But he objected to the decision to push the relocation of the wolves to Mexico. He said Mexico has too few public lands and too few prey animals to make this a viable option for rebuilding the Mexican wolf population.

The recovery of Mexican gray wolves in the wild has become more urgent in recent years due to a population decline between 2014 and 2015. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced last week that the number of Mexican wolves in Arizona and New Mexico had dropped to 97 from 110, with 13 deaths and just 23 surviving pups.

The agency has said it intends to release more gray wolves in New Mexico, despite objections by the state Game and Fish Department.

“If the Fish and Wildlife Service had always needed state approval to let wolves go, I’d still be waiting on a dock in North Carolina to let the red wolves go,” said Phillips, who released the first red wolves into the wild through a federal program in 1987.

He said the State Game Commission has “made some decisions that I thought were a bit curious. But that is history, that is water under the bridge.”

Contact Rebecca Moss at 505-986-3011 or rmoss@sfnewmexican.com.