Wolf Whistle

Many rural Arizonans regard wolves as the enemy, and they're winning little battles in the war against wolf reintroduction.

The Arizona Game and Fish Commission met May 12, heard from 300 people passionate on the Mexican gray wolf recovery program, then fired a shot across the bow of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service--no more wolf release sites in Arizona.

But the five-member commission did not do what some environmentalists had feared--withdraw from the Arizona, New Mexico and federal partnership that aims to put 100 wolves into forested areas of the Southwest.

While the commission heard from people representing the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, the Arizona Cattlegrowers Association, Gila National Forest Permittees Association, Defenders of Wildlife, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and plenty of local ranchers, hunters and rural residents, the hopes and fears of many in the audience might be summed up in comments made by two of the 68 speakers.

Laura Schneberger, a rancher from Winston, N. M., said she is afraid for her 3-year-old son when she hears radio-collar tracking planes fly above her rural home.

"I spent 34 days with a Mexican wolf in my back yard. She was literally starving. To this day I'm scared whenever my son disappears in my own garden. I lose track of him for an instant, and I'm scared," she said.

"I look for planes on Monday and Thursday. If I don't see them, I can relax a little but not fully. This is not a successful program."

Schneberger said she serves on the board of the Gila National Forest Permittees Association and its membership has dropped from 130 to 80 permittees, most of whom hold permits for cattle grazing on the forest.

Steve Pavlik of Tucson appeared in support of the wolf recovery program, which is three years into a five-year run.

"I'm a conservative. I'm a registered Republican. I'm an NRA member. I'm a hunter. I support the wolf reintroduction with the last bone and last breath in my body," he said.

"We've limited them. We've poisoned them. We need to bring back the wolf--it's the right thing to do," Pavlik said.

Providing some of the scarce facts that both sides debated was a report presented by Richard Remmington, regional supervisor for AGF in Pinetop. His office oversees the wolf technicians, wildlife biologists and trackers who roam the Apache National Forest as they try to track four of five wolf packs through rugged mountain country with few roads, fewer people and many areas into which even captive-raised wolves can disappear.

"Territories have been established in the recovery area. Currently, population growth would fall short of that predicted in the EIS. The actual (wolf) mortality is close to that predicted in the EIS. Two-thirds of the wolves released don't exhibit cattle depredation or nuisance behavior. Births have taken place in the wild and birth rates are similar to those predicted in the EIS," he said.

On the issue of whether there are enough elk, deer and antelope to support the four wolf packs now roaming eastern Arizona, Remmington said the data are insufficient to say for sure.

"No wolves have starved. Wolves have eaten wild game in the forest. Supplemental feeding has been discontinued. And 85 percent of wolf prey is elk," he said.

The bad news that Remmington presented in a series of slides culled from field reports was enough to give even supporters of the program cause for worry. For example:

· Wolves have repeatedly wandered out of the recovery area, resulting in their recapture by AGF and USFWS staff for relocation.

· Wolves have regularly been involved in attacks on cattle, miniature horses, dogs, chickens, pets and other non-wild animals.

· There are now just 27 to 31 wolves occupying 1,400 square miles of federal forest land in Arizona and New Mexico, despite an impressive birth rate of wild-born pups and regular releases of new captive-raised wolves from "halfway houses" in New Mexico.

· The survival rate for wild-born pups appears to be less than 20 percent, based on figures presented by Remmington.

· Seventeen wolves "have been returned to captivity for problem behaviors."

· Out of the 48 captive-bred wolves released into the forests and the 18 pups born in the wild, only 22 are now radio-collared and 11 are "missing." That yields a survival rate for the 66 wolves put into federal forests in two states of less than half those reintroduced.

Remmington woke up the crowd with news that wildlife biologists have proposed more releases of Mexican gray wolves for two areas in Arizona and six sites in New Mexico.

The future Arizona release sites are Bear Mountain and Mannes Peak, Apache National Forest areas located midway between Clifton and Alpine.

In New Mexico, future release sites were not named, but the locations shown on slides are east of Silver City and north of Reserve. The future release areas appear to lie within the Gila National Forest, not just the current Gila Wilderness, an action frequently demanded by environmental groups.

Remmington said the three-year review concluded the two-state area could handle up to 165 wolves based on a per-pack territory size of about 235 square miles. However, other data presented by him showed that if wolves subsist solely on elk they hunt, the two-state range could support only about 50 wolves--well short of the plan's goal of 100 wolves.

In closing his report, Remmington said the federal Fish and Wildlife Service contracted with the Conservation Breeding Specialist Group of the World Conservation Union for an independent scientific review of the wolf recovery program. That review produced three basic conclusions:

· "Recovery should continue with modifications."

· "The biology, politics and sociology of wolf reintroduction in the Southwest are too complex for recovery to be successful without a fully engaged and participatory program."

· "Several factors currently hinder recovery " the cumulative and synergistic effect of these several factors generate a significant risk of ultimate failure" for the wolf recovery program.

The simple declaration the Mexican gray wolf recovery program had a risk of "ultimate failure" drew varied reactions from the five commissioners, environmental groups, rural residents and state Rep. Jake Flake (R-Snowflake), who represents much of eastern Arizona.

Flake, a cattle rancher well-known as a staunch advocate of rural concerns, called for the taxpayers of Arizona to reimburse ranchers for lost cattle and even failed ranches if the state wants to continue the wolf recovery program.

"I represent Greenlee County, the people of Greenlee County and five other counties. I have a great concern. In the last five years, cattle ranching (in Greenlee) has been cut 75 to 85 percent compared to five years ago," he said.

"If the public wants the wolf, then they should pay for the loss of ranchers. Many, many ranchers have lost their ranches. Something must be done."

Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity's Silver City branch disputed the idea of spending more money on wolf management.

"We think the management has been overly intrusive. We have $300,000 going to the agency that wiped them out. The wolves don't need money. They need to be left alone. We need to give these wolves the opportunity to succeed," he said.

"Allow releases into Gila National Forest. Wolves need to be able to roam outside the recovery area. It doesn't make sense--wolves can't read maps. And we have to address dead cattle that die from disease that are left out in the forest for wolves to find."

Commissioner Sue Chilton was persistent in trying to find out just how many elk the released wolves may have killed over three years. She said that lacking a specific answer from AGF biologists, she multiplied 15,998 wolf days of release times six pounds of meat consumed per wolf per day to arrive at 95,988 pounds of prey consumed by the released wolves.

Elk can weigh from 300 to 600 pounds each, while deer range from 120 to 250 pounds depending on sex, age and time of year.

"I think they (wolves) take in addition to what is taken by other predators," she said.

Chilton also expressed concern about the people-attack scenario raised by Schneberger.

"I'm worried about the liability we face if somebody's two-year-old is snatched by wolves. If coyotes will do that, I'm not convinced wolves won't. I'm very concerned about that," she said.

Karen Williams of Safford, who runs the Eastern Arizona Wildlife Center, said, "I'm amazed at the misconceptions the public has about the wolf. The wolf is a predator. It can be done if it's done right."

Her daughter, 11-year-old Mattie Thompson, said, "I think it is a magnificent creature. I hope you will continue the wolf program."

Commission Chairman Dennis Manning complimented Thompson on being involved in wildlife at such a young age, but then expressed serious reservations about the program.

"In my opinion, there are three flaws, big flaws in this program. They are (the assumption) the area can contain 100 wolves, most wolves will stay in the area and the agencies can recapture wandering wolves. All of these assumptions have been proven false," he said.

Other commissioners had their say, including Carter, who was a former Graham County manager. At the end of a period where only Commissioner Michael Golightly spoke openly in favor of the wolf recovery program, Carter proposed the commission send a letter to USFWS.

In his motion, Carter asked the federal agency to hold all future meetings in recovery area towns, give locals a chance to participate in the process, notify local governments and elected officials of possible future release sites, accept financial liability for any lawsuits filed against Arizona by persons injured by wolves, and "not use any additional release sites in Arizona for the Mexican gray wolf reintroduction program beyond those sites which have been used since the inception of the program."

Golightly voted against the motion while Manning, Carter, Chilton and W. Hays Gilstrap voted in favor.

Sandy Bahr of the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon Chapter flatly rejected any effort to limit future release sites or limit the movements of wolves.

"The recommendation on no new release sites is contrary to what biologists are recommending. The problem is a lack of flexibility for the wolves. If they would follow the science they would allow wolves to wander. What the commission said is contrary to what the science said. They're trying to throw up a roadblock. Let the biologists do their job and let the wolves be wolves," she said.

Rep. Flake commented on the makeup of the audience to explain why the commission had heard such diametrically opposed views.

"Nearly all opposed are local and all in favor are from Phoenix and Tucson," he said.

In the end, Craig Miller of the Defenders of Wildlife, which has regularly reached out to ranchers in both states to pay compensation for injured or killed livestock, was limited to restating his promise to work with anyone and talk with anyone.

"I spent the last several days talking to permittees open to cooperation to minimize conflicts, such as putting in portable electric fences, using riders in calving season and using alternative pastures. We have worked with ranchers," he said.

After the meeting ended and chairs were being stacked for a dance that evening, one sign of hope for the controversial program could be seen in Miller talking to Schneberger. Nearby, a few other pro-wolf persons talked to a few ranchers and rural residents.

Where those talks lead will not be known for some time. And whether the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will bow to Arizona's demand is unknown.

What is known is that rural and urban, hunter and rancher, hiker and fisherman finally met in the hot, flat cotton fields of the Gila Valley. When they did, they shared a thirst for beer, they both sweated in the heat and they got to know each other a little bit better.