[Source: Arizona Capitol Times, Bill Coates] – – The Arizona Game and Fish Commission voted to continue supporting the state’s role in managing the Mexican wolf-recovery program, which has cost some $18 million since its inception 26 years ago.
“We absolutely appreciate how expensive this program is,” Terry Johnson, the Game and Fish Department’s endangered species coordinator, told the commission in a presentation covering the history of the wolf reintroduction and recovery program. Arizona has borne some $4.6 million of that cost – about half of the state’s share coming from federal funds. New Mexico, a partner in the wolf-recovery effort, has paid a tenth of that toward wolf recovery – some $540,000.
Reintroducing a predator that was wiped out in Arizona has long been a matter of working with people as much as wolves. Environmental groups and ranchers have often clashed over the program’s management. The wolf’s recovery area is largely in public lands open to grazing.
The program is run under the umbrella of the Active Management Oversight Committee, which includes Arizona, New Mexico, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Forest Service, the U.S. Wildlife Services and the White Mountain Apache Tribe.
Discussion prior to the Oct. 10 vote touched on trying to get New Mexico to contribute more toward the program, but a speaker told the panel that that state was hampered by a lack of funding sources. “New Mexico does not have all the non-game funding we have,” Stephanie Nichols-Young, president of the Animal Defense League of Arizona, told the commission. Arizona has the Heritage Fund and other revenue sources for endangered species and other wildlife. That money can be leveraged to bring in more federal dollars as well. With wolf recovery, some of the money is used to make sure game and wildlife officials are available to respond to complaints about wolf attacks on livestock. But ranchers say that is not enough.
Greenlee County Supervisor Chairman Hector Rueda told the commissioners: “We currently believe the program is under-funded.” He added the program – as it’s being run – was headed toward failure. Doc Lane, executive vice president of the Arizona Cattlemen’s Association, echoed Rueda’s statements. Among other things, ranchers want federal compensation for wolf depredation of livestock. The commission voted to pursue such funding.
In a phone interview, however, Sandy Bahr of the state Sierra Club chapter, said ranchers shouldn’t be compensated for “being bad stewards.” She cited incidents of depredation on cattle grazing in areas we they are not permitted. Bahr also spoke to the commission prior to the vote. At the meeting, Rueda objected to lifting a rule that currently confines wolves to a defined area within the Blue Range of eastern Arizona and western New Mexico. Wolves found outside that area are relocated. Bahr, however, told commissioners: “We don’t support having artificial boundaries in place.”
In a prepared statement on the vote, the commission said it recognized the Mexican gray wolf as a “component of a larger ‘metapopulation.'” It went on to state that creating this larger population – presumably by allowing the wolves to go outside the current recovery boundaries – would go toward creating a self-sustaining population. The objective has been to achieve a population of at least 100 wolves in the wild. But the population has rarely risen above 60. There are an estimated 50 wolves now.
Johnson said the department will have a more precise figure after the end-of-the-year count. Among other things, that will involve tracking wolves wearing radio collars from aircraft using radio telemetry. “We need to grow this wolf population,” Johnson told the panel.
In its vote, the commission – among other things – directed the agency to increase the genetic diversity of the wolf population. All of the wolves come from three genetic lines established through five original wolves from Mexico. The five-member commission met in the spacious auditorium at its new headquarters on the Carefree Highway in north Phoenix.