New Mexico ranchers, environmentalists at odds on cattle, wolves

Mexican gray wolf mp1385, a 10-month old, 25-pound pup, has its tracking collar adjusted. It was trapped on a grazing allotment on the Gila National Forest in 2015 and later died after being struck with a shovel. Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Different methods are in the works to keep the threatened Mexican gray wolf and cattle apart in a decadeslong conflict between wildlife activists and ranching interests.

Whether the methods will be successful — or even accepted — remains uncertain.

Ranchers need more tools to deal with the conflict, said Bryan Bird, director of the Southwest Program for Defenders of Wildlife. The group works with ranchers to keep wolves at bay, using older methods such as range riders and newer approaches like red flagging, called flandry, and scaring devices. Those devices blare loud noises when a wolf’s radio tracking collar indicates it is in the vicinity.

Defenders of Wildlife, Bird said, will partially fund a range rider to watch over cattle at a rancher’s request.

“We are pressing the Forest Service right now to adopt those tools into their official management plans for the Gila National Forest,” Bird said.

But Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association, said she was skeptical of some of the methods and the wolf reintroduction attempt in general.

“The wolf problem started out with conflicts and we are still fighting the same battle,” Cowan said last week.

The Mexican gray wolf was listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act in 1976, and a program to reintroduce the wolf into the wild in Western New Mexico and eastern Arizona has been underway since 1982. There are currently about 114 wolves in the two states.

Wildlife managers said last week that a record number of Mexican gray wolves have been reported dead this year, including five in New Mexico. That brings the total deaths to 17, though federal officials haven’t specified how the animals died. At the same time, 66 livestock kills have been confirmed.

“In our opinion, the program has failed,” Cowan said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal agency overseeing the reintroduction, considers it a success, a spokesman said earlier this year.

Ideas on wolf-cattle separation got mixed reviews from Cowan, who lives in Albuquerque.

“Range riders are somewhat helpful,” said Cowan, but the posting of the red flags on posts in the ground will not be effective, she added.

“They are very smart animals,” she said of wolves. “It’s not going to take very long for them to realize those are not going to hurt them.”

The wolf-cattle issue was again highlighted recently when the U.S. Forest Service revoked the 48,000-acre grazing allotment permit of Craig Andrew Thiessen for the February 2015 killing of a 10-month-old, 25-pound wolf pup near Reserve in the Gila National Forest. He was sentenced in May to one year of probation and ordered to pay $2,300 to the wolf recovery program after pleading guilty.

Thiessen, of Datil, acknowledged in a telephone interview earlier this year that he struck the wolf pup on his allotment after catching it in a trap, but he denied killing it. He pleaded guilty to a federal misdemeanor criminal charge of taking threatened wildlife. He admitted in a court hearing that he knew the wolf, labeled mp1385, was an endangered Mexican gray wolf because of the tracking collar it wore.

Bird praised the revocation of his grazing permit. “We think it’s important that there be consequences for killing of endangered species, especially a species like the Mexican gray wolf that is really so close to extinction, and so imperiled,” he said.

Cowan called the revocation “terribly unfair,” saying her organization would see what it could do for Thiessen, noting it was a misdemeanor conviction.

“There are few crimes that take away your livelihood, your house and your way of life,” she said, adding that Thiessen was in danger of losing his home.

The cancellation of Thiessen’s permit in Gila National Forest stemmed from his conviction, according to a Nov. 29 notification from Marie Sebrechts, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service’s Southwestern Region, to the New Mexico congressional delegation. Thiessen has 45 days from the cancellation notice date to appeal.

The permit provides suspension or cancellation of a grazing allotment for conviction for failure to comply with federal and state laws or regulations relating to livestock control, Sebrechts’ statement said. Other ranchers will be offered the allotment when the administrative process is completed, she said.

According to records from the federal Farm Service Agency, Thiessen received approximately $350,000 in 11 separate payments from 2015 through 2017 under the Livestock Indemnity Program and the Livestock Forage Disaster Program, but the documents, obtained by The New Mexican under a Freedom of Information Act request, do not give specifics. Those programs pay ranchers for livestock losses from predators and other causes.

In another approach that attempts to remove cattle from public lands, Santa Fe-based WildEarth Guardians Executive Director John Horning said his group wants to pay ranchers to get out of ranching on public lands by temporarily retiring their grazing allotments. His organization is pushing for federal legislation for permanent allotment retirements, said Horning.

“Permanent retirement is a strategy that has a lot of common ground on an issue that is otherwise quite polarizing, and for that reason, especially as we have more ranchers reach out to us, we are optimistic that this strategy can become more mainstream to ensure that there are fewer conflicts,” Horning said in an interview.

The permits that WildEarth refers to are “special circumstances” and are not permanent retirements but are intended “to rest the allotment for resource protection” for a maximum of 10 years, Gila National Forest spokeswoman Marta Call said in an email. Removal of lands suitable for livestock must be consistent with the Gila’s management plan, which is currently being revised, she said.

One allotment on the Gila has been retired so far and two others are under contract, said WildEarth Guardians wildlife advocate Chris Smith.

Cowan is skeptical of the idea of ranchers voluntarily relinquishing their grazing allotments. “Giving up your permit for 10 years for wolves, I would doubt you would ever get that permit back,” she said.

Cowan and Horning disagree on the nature of the permits.

“It was significant philosophical threshold for us to cross over because grazing is a privilege, it’s not a right, so to pay someone for the privilege not to graze requires a little counterintuitive logic,” Horning said. “But it also recognizes that these ranchers have value in their permits.”

“Permits are private property rights in our mind; we don’t find it’s terribly helpful for the long term,” said Cowan, referring to the temporary retirements.

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