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Protected wolves
lay waste to cattle

Arizona ranchers Gary and Darcy Ely have had a tough 6 months. It shows in their faces. Gary spends most of his time in the saddle, and Darcy spends most of hers, coordinating meetings, kids and trying to keep the normally calm Gary from losing his cool.

The Elys were fully aware they lived in close proximity to the Mexican Wolf Francisco pack, even dealing with wolf depredations on their livestock. Over the course of the past summer, however, something happened to the Francisco pack that has the Elys scrambling for help. The wolves had a successful litter of pups, and things drastically changed for the worse in the Elys’ pastures.

In July, Gary Ely put 165 cows with 70 branded calves into their summer pasture on the 4-drag Ranch in eastern Arizona. In November, after gathering for over a month, his found tally is so low that he is not optimistic about remaining in business. Found so far are 158 cows and 31 calves; six of those were born in the pasture.

Last week, after finding a partially consumed calf – one of the few that could be found – the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service informed Gary that he was really dealing with the combined forces of two packs of wolves. Nine of the wolves have collars and are definitely part of the Mexican Wolf Recovery Program. At least five are possible pups; three have been trapped and have temporary collars; and two of them are unknowns. Of these unknowns, one is so big that it has earned the name Bigfoot. To date, no one has been able to trap Bigfoot to determine whether he is actually a Mexican wolf born to the packs in the last year or two, or if he is a feral hybrid released to supplement the gene pool. If the wolf turns out to be a hybrid, the question will be: How did it get there, and has it mated with any of the other wolves?

Across the fence from the Elys, on the San Carlos Reservation, just 5 miles from the Elys’ livestock allotment, the livestock that provides the San Carlos Apache tribe with income and a food supply for ceremonies has all but disappeared. Tribal leaders want to know why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has ignored their plea to remove the marauding wolves. So far, answers have not been forthcoming.

Gobbled up

According to the final rule of the Mexican Wolf Recovery Program, the expected livestock depredation numbers were supposed to remain at 30 head a year, once 100 Mexican wolves were recovered into the Blue Range wolf recovery area. On the 4-Drag, 16 wolves have likely slaughtered nearly 50 calves and several cows since late spring, many of them since July. This count gives the pack the benefit of the doubt by not including the unknown depredation numbers from reservation losses. This count also ignores the Elys’ missing adult cows, as well as calves that were due to be born in the pasture yet didn’t show up. The count is far over the expected depredations – from less than a quarter of the wolves.

Using those conservative numbers, the super pack has eaten three to four calves each in 120 days. If this is any indication of the need for prey, 100 wolves in cattle country, with a free buffet of livestock, will eat at least 1,600 calves per year, and likely many more. These numbers are closer to historic data on Mexican Wolf depredations, but much higher than the current school of thought expressed in the wolf recovery plan.

USFWS would like to blame the damage on other predators. Lion kills have historically been a problem on the 4-Drag, but the Elys say their depredations have increased from a bad-year high of 25 percent depredation attributed to lion, coyote and bear, to an overwhelming 70 percent in just two years.

Back in the good old days of 25 percent, the newcomer wolf packs were not as successful at providing for themselves and less capable of bringing down livestock. Instead, they preferred to live off hunter leavings and lion kills, many times driving the lions to kill more livestock and wildlife and driving hunters off their game.

Rancher Doug Stacy in Arizona watched a different pack of five wolves chase six elk not more than 75 yards from his truck and trailer while gathering cattle, proving that it isn’t just ranchers with something to lose.

“All the sportsmen need to get on the bandwagon before they don’t have any game to hunt. Just think about the future picture as these damn things multiply,” said Stacy.

Animal Damage Control, the agency responsible for capturing problem wolves and other livestock killers, has its own wolf troubles. In late October, three members of the super pack ambushed employee J.R Murdoch while he watched from horseback. They appeared out of nowhere and badly mauled one of his female lion hounds before he could intervene.

Babysitting wolves

The advent of an unknown number of pups in 2002 has lent a successful air to the project; three collared pups live in the super pack. However, with mouths to feed, the wolves have hit their predatory stride. The Elys and the San Carlos Reservation Apaches are paying the bill, given that the super pack territory has expanded deeply into the reservation in the last two years.

Both wolf packs involved in the massive depredations are confirmed livestock killers. Experimental 10-J status allows the USFWS to remove them, but nothing substantial has been done to limit the nightmare to a manageable scope. Arizona Wildlife Services feels it is becoming impossible to trap them, leaving helicopter removal as the only option.

USFWS has considered bringing in contract trappers, but this idea seems to create an agency scuffle that no one wants to broach as of yet. The past year alone, Animal Damage Control trappers spent hundreds of fruitless hours babysitting wolves and trying to find what little evidence was left of ranchers’ high calf losses in wolf recovery areas.

Acting on orders from the Mexican Wolf Recovery leader, who has faced two years of demands that he remove the wolves from the San Carlos Reservation, Animal Damage Control, a division of Wildlife Services, was ordered to play musical wolves: trapping wolves from the reservation, only to release them back into the forest where they could roam right back to the reservation or deeper into the 4-Drag. Wildlife Services believes that the constant manipulation and shuffling of wolves has trained them to avoid traps and has intensified the problem.

The education of Mexican wolves is not news to ranchers who, before the project was begun, warned that history shows too much trapping would habituate the wolves to traps.

Bureaucratic tug of war

With the sudden increase in wolf numbers, lethal control is an option. USFWS, however, refuses to give the state agencies the authority to make normal management decisions, much less a lethal-take decision. Ranchers offered lethal-take permits often refuse because of threats to their operations and livestock by wolf activists and environmental extremists who see wolf reintroduction as a political and biological weapon against land use in the West. The Elys want nothing to do with what they feel is a USFWS responsibility.

There is no doubt the recovery program is in the midst of a major power struggle. Both the Arizona and New Mexico Fish and Game commissions have been unhappy with the project and are determined to have more of a say in how it is managed.

Arizona Game Commissioner Joe Carter says the program is clearly in disarray.

“Over the past two years, the program has continued to disintegrate in fulfilling the obligations of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Arizona Commission, myself included, have discussed this with H. Dale Hall, and we would like to see him turn this around and make full partners of the state agencies so we all know who is responsible for what.”

Carter calls the wolf reintroduction the only real problem project they have conducted with the USFWS; other projects have worked well in the past. This lends credence to rancher claims that the original wolf recovery plan was unrealistic and compiled with faulty data.

As Carter points out, “When a grazing permittee is losing 70 percent of his calf crop and we can tie the cause to wildlife, the state game agencies bear a responsibility for dealing with that problem. With things going the way they are, if we cannot control and manage the 10 or 25 or 40 wolves that are out there, how are we going to manage 100 animals?”

Arizona and New Mexico state agencies are insisting on a set protocol for dealing with problem animals, including identifying who has the authority to deal with depredation problems, removal and lethal control issues. As things stand, no decision to remove an offending wolf can happen at the state level. All management decisions are being made at the USFWS level.

While major project renovations languish in the bureaucracy, the wolves in Arizona have taken this season to establish themselves as record-breaking livestock killers, living off the labors of the few remaining ranchers in Arizona and the helpless people on the Apache reservation.

Ely says Fish and Wildlife Mexican wolf recovery coordinator Brian Kelly told him that the Arizona game department does not want to help deal with the Elys’ problem, and that Gary needed to talk to them and find out why. This information was a big surprise to Carter. His impression was that a plan to begin dealing with the super pack should be in place within days, though USFWS only provides for the removal of three un-collared wolves.

Whether that gives the Elys enough relief to stay in business remains to be seen. It is entirely possible that if they stay, the Elys will have to feed wolves for free in perpetuity, and they aren’t inclined to furnish the chuck that long. Defenders of Wildlife, who reimburses ranchers for lost livestock, has bowed out of the process, since even they cannot continue to write the checks the wolves are cashing at the Ely chuck wagon. So far, the Elys say they have gotten one check in 2001 for heifers they lost amounting to $1,000. This year, there have been many promises, but nothing else, for one badly bitten ranch horse and two baby calves.

Related story:

New Mexicans fight wolf release

Related column:

Here come the wolves

Editor’s note: This article is made possible by a grant from the Paragon Foundation.

Laura Schneberger is a full-time ranch wife and mother as well as a part-time writer. She lives with her husband, Matt, and three homeschooled children on a small cow calf operation in South Central New Mexico in the Black Range Mountains of the Gila National Forest.