BISBEE — Wolves. Just mention the word and depending on how one views predatory American animals, there are bound to be those who are in awe of the stamina, power and grace of the animal who once roamed the West in numbers and those who are fearful of its agile and deadly ability to kill.
As the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposes to open protected areas in New Mexico and Arizona for the reintroduction of the smaller Mexican Wolf, an uproar of opposition has been raised by ranchers who cannot afford to lose stock and who fear for their children and pets.
That was obvious as the Cochise County Board of Supervisors invited the public to make official comments on the proposal during Tuesday’s meeting. Though FWS is considering the release in the county above Interstate 10, three of the four of the scheduled public hearings are not even in Arizona. The only one is scheduled in Phoenix on a date yet to be determined, said Kim Mulhern, hydrologist and wildlife consultant for the county. That was the reason the Supervisors decided to hold a public hearing so that the voices of the county could be heard.
Mulhern noted the FWS proposed de-listing of the Gray Wolf as an endangered species, but was in the process of listing the Mexican Wolf, a smaller version of the gray, as endangered.
FWS is proposing to expand the Mexican wolf’s protected areas on state and federal public lands, Mulhern explained. The proposed rule would allow releases into all areas of central Arizona north of I-10. The Service is also considering an option that is currently not in the proposed rule to expand the geographic boundaries for the Mexican wolf down to the US/Mexico border in Arizona and New Mexico, affecting all areas of the county.
The basic proposed rule, if the Mexican Wolf is listed as endangered, would permit a direct release from captivity to the wild throughout the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area, which runs through the central part of New Mexico from its border with Texas to the Arizona border with California, explained Mulhern. FWS expects the Mexican wolves, a sub-species of the gray wolf, to disperse naturally from the Blue Range into the expanded protection area on both federal and state lands, as well as some private land holdings.
Mary Darling, an environmental consultant, said Mexico had released some of these wolves into remote areas of the country about 20 miles south of Douglas, and there was a possibility of wolves making their ways north into the U.S. and up the San Bernardino Valley and the Chiricahua Mountains. If the FWS does re-list the Mexican as endangered, then those who cross the border would be considered protected and could not be harmed. It also would effect grazing leases ranchers may have with federal and state lands.
The Arizona Game and Fish Department has been concerned in recent years about the decreases in deer and antelope populations, so there is a conflict regarding the availability of sufficient large prey for all of the current predators in the area, noted Mulhern. With the addition of Mexican wolves, lack of prey would likely cause them to resort to preying on livestock, pets, and other non-wild prey.
Sherry Barrett, FWS Mexican wolf coordinator, faced a hostile crowd at the hearing, yet moved forward with her presentation on the proposed reintroduction of the endangered species.
“I recognize that ranchers are not in favor of the reintroduction of the wolf,” Barrett added. “However, in polls, people want to see the wolves reestablished in their former environments, even though for most, the wolves would not be in their backyards.”
It is expected that these wolves would prefer smaller game such as javelina or deer. However, depending on the numbers of prey animals, it is possible for these wolves to take down stock and impact the ranching economy.
In cases of proven predations, FWS could allow the killing of the wolf by authorized personnel, said Barrett.
In the standing-room only meeting room, rancher after rancher came forward to express their confusion and dissatisfaction with the decision to incorporate any part of Cochise County into the reintroduction areas. So did state Sen. Gail Griffin.
Gilbert Reeves, Huachuca City, said he was not a rancher, but could relate to their concerns. He voiced concern for his great-grandchild who could become a target for wolves.
“We don’t need this,” Reeves stated. “Can we eat these wolves? They’re no good for anything. I don’t see why we even have them here. I think the American public rolls over and is silent too often. I’ve rolled over for my last time. It’s time to stand up and fight, people … Let’s put a stop to all this foolishness … Shame on the federal government. They’re here to help us.”
Reeves claimed that shelters had to be constructed in New Mexico so that children waiting for school buses would be safe from wolves.
Steven Smith, Elfrida, stated that the federal government was taking away ranchers’ ability to manage their livestock “in a profitable manner,” which “infringes on our pursuit of happiness,” and “serves no useful purpose for our county or residents.”
Only three people were in favor of the reintroduction project Liza Weissler, Bob Wick and Bob Weissler with the Friends of the San Pedro.
Wick said he thought that this corner of Arizona was blessed in that there was such a rich diversity of wildlife, something he did not have growing up in Ohio. He suggested that the reintroduction of the Mexican wolf would add to the tourism industry as people would want to come and watch the wolf packs. He also told the ranchers that he was “disappointed” that they were not reimbursed for stock they lost to predators.
Bob Weissler reasoned that if Mexican wolves did cross the border, they would probably move on because there was not enough prey. Additionally, the Defenders of Wildlife have a fund for compensation of stock that have been proven to be killed by wolves. When wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone Park, for example, the coyote population that had been preying on smaller animals plummeted and those species came back. The elk herds became more robust as the old and sick were taken down by the wolf packs.
“We’re interested in putting predator/prey balance back into the wilderness and our wild areas because there are unforeseen indirect impacts,” Bob Weissler stated.
All the comments received through the public hearing will be forwarded to the FWS by the supervisors so that Cochise County residents will have a voice in the process. The supervisors approved a letter to FWS earlier in the meeting stating that they were against any wolves being introduced into the county.