Southwest ranching group files intent to sue FWS

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Ranchers sue over wolves

By Tom Jackson King, Eastern Arizona Courier Managing Editor

5/24/02

A coalition of rural Southwestern groups has filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for "violations of the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act" during the wolf reintroduction program.

The first official word of the groups' intent to sue USFWS came in a Friday news release from the agency.

The May 17 news release says, "The Coalition of Arizona and New Mexico Counties for Stable Economic Growth, the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association and the Gila Forest Permittees have filed a 60-day notice for violations of the Endangered Species Act and the national Environmental Policy Act relating to the reintroduction of the Mexican wolf into the Southwestern United States."

The notice claims the agency is allowing wolves to interbreed with other canines such as dogs, creating wolf-hybrids that are allegedly a danger to rural residents and a violation of the Endangered Species Act. Greenlee County is a member of the coalition.

The five-year, $9 million federal and state program to reintroduce up to 100 Mexican gray wolves into the national forests of eastern Arizona and western New Mexico is in its fourth year with living wolf numbers -- as counted by radio collars -- standing at 19, out of scores of captive-bread and forest-born wolves known to have been reintroduced.

The program has drawn intense criticism from rural ranchers, farmers and elected officials for its alleged failure, the cost of the program, the intrusion of federal rules into legally permitted grazing activities and an alleged lack of communication with rural people most directly affected by the introduction of a canine predator into forests used for multiple purposes. Environmental groups such as the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife been just as critical. They have urged the USFWS to "just let the wolves be wolves" with a minimal amount of human interference, to stop relocating wolves that attack cattle and to require that ranchers remove dead cattle from national forest public land so as to stop wolf scavenging of cattle carcasses.

Laura Schneberger, a Winston, N.M. rancher who heads the Gila Forest Permittees, says recent genetic testing of Mexican gray wolves is in response to the group's lawsuit filing.

"FWS is hardly checking the gene pool of the Pipestem litter because they want to find out the truth. The fact is, they were served with a 60-day notice of intent last month because of the hybrid problem," she said.

"It was filed by the Coalition of Counties, livestock organizations and hunting interests. After the Pipestem puppies turned up looking like hybrids, they (USFWS) decided they had finally better deal with it," Schneberger said.

"If these pups turn out to be hybrids . . . it is a take of an endangered species, according to the ESA. Worse than the shootings that have taken place. Destroying an individual is not as serious as allowing a species to deteriorate," she said. "By the way, the pup in question has spots and is lightly colored. Nothing like it should be (existing). Animals like wolf hybrids don't just show up."

Some wolves may even be a hazard to other wolves. If some recently born Pipestem wolf pups show a mixed wolf-dog pedigree, the hybrid pups will have to be destroyed.

Elizabeth Slown, a spokesperson for the Albuquerque USFWS office, said , "We would euthanize them. We use the term euthanize the hybrids. We consider hybrids a problem."

Problems with the genetic purity of Mexican gray wolves, with putting captive-bred wolves into forests and the low survival rate of wolves in the wild were predicted by the Arizona Cattlemen's Association four years ago in a Dec. 3, 1998, position paper. The paper came out eight months after the first release of wolves.

"The preferred wild prey base has been declining in the area for several years . . . Many questions about the genetic purity and health of the captive Mexican gray wolves still exist . . . The wolves have been raised in captivity and are ill-prepared to survive in the wild," the paper said.

"While the organization has never opposed a valid, scientific reintroduction program that had a chance of success, we have felt all along that this specific program was ill-advised. The program, as circumstances have proven, is not in the best interest of the local residents, ranching families, the general public or the wolves themselves. The wolves have been trapped, drugged, caged, relocated and starved," the ACA statement said.

With live radio-collared wolf numbers declining from a high of 30 or more a year ago to 19 in April, calls for Arizona to pull out of the federal program have increased.

Democratic Rep. Bobby Lugo (District 8) represents part of Greenlee County and Cochise County in the state House of Representatives. When asked at a Duncan town hall meeting Feb. 15 if he favored Arizona pulling out from the program, Lugo said, "Yes, that's what the constituents want. In cases like this, I go talk to the people that are affected by that issue. I think they (rural voters) want Arizona to pull out."

Hector Ruedas, a Greenlee County supervisor who attended a town hall meeting April 26 in Reserve, N.M., that was hosted by USFWS, said rural residents are unhappy with the program and its impact on their lives.

"We don't want the wolf in our area. People are suffering already. It's had a big economic impact on our area. I can tell you for sure the people in New Mexico in Catron County don't want the wolf," he said.

Caren Cowan, spokesperson for the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, has previously said moving wolves into the Gila Wilderness didn't prevent conflicts between wolves and livestock.

"It's not solving the problem. We are opposed to these releases and we continue to be opposed to any future releases," she said.

Wolf supporters have been equally vocal in their support for the reintroduction of a "keystone predator" back into the natural ecosystems of the Apache National Forest and Gila Wilderness.

Bob Ferris, vice president of species conservation for Defenders of Wildlife, has argued for a great expansion of the wolf release area beyond the two federal forest areas.

"We already think the experimental area is too small. We think the amount of land allowed wolves to roam challenges the survival of the wolves. We do believe every effort should be made to allow wolves to recolonize federal public lands. I would like to see more reintroductions, both in Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest and in Gila National Forest," he said in July 2000.

"There are more opportunities for reintroduction out there, away from major cattle herds, on public lands. We do think wolves should be represented throughout the ecosystem. Our concern in the Southwest is we would like to see more habitats opening up in Mexico and Texas, in addition to Arizona and New Mexico. We're asking for seven to eight percent of the historic range. We're not looking to return North America to precolonial times," Ferris said.

The Center for Biological Diversity isn't happy with the efforts of BLM and the Forest Service to safeguard wolves. The May 17 USFWS release says:

"The Center for Biological Diversity has filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management for violation of the Endangered Species Act for failing to take measures (i.e., removal of livestock carcasses and /or render them unpalatable) that would prevent Mexican wolves from feeding on livestock carcasses, thus leading to the wolves' removal from the wild," it said.

USFWS wolf program manager Brian Kelly has previously addressed the issue of wolf deaths and dead livestock left where wolves can find the carcasses.

"One thing we do is to remove carcasses from the road in an area where we know wolves are present. Wolves do better in areas with less roads. That's one of the beauties of our reintroduction area in both Arizona and New Mexico," Kelly said.

As for the apparently high wolf and pup death rates in the wild, Kelly said, "I suspect we'll see more mortalities because the short two-year-olds are more likely to be moving around. It's like leaving home -- your defenses are down. It's complicated by our using captive-born wolves. There is a naivetŽ on their part. I think it's doing well, when you look at the number of wolves out there."
 
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