Conflicting reports are swirling around Arizona about a potential killing of an ESA-listed Mexican gray wolf in the state. Details are being sought on several fronts, but in the event that a wolf is killed, a thorough investigation will ensue by the Arizona Department of Game and Fish.
Although confirmed reports of wolves illegally being killed by people are relatively rare, wolf reintroduction in the West has consistently forced ranchers to face a harsh reality. Where there are apex predators, livestock are going to die. Among ranchers affected are those in Southern Arizona and New Mexico, where a subspecies of gray wolves (Canis lupus Bailey) have roamed, reintroduced since 1998.
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Wolf reintroductions have stirred debate in the ranching industries for decades, leaving ranchers asking some of the same questions: Depredation payment programs do not accurately account for the losses incurred by ranches — so when will this change? When are enough wolves, enough?
Additionally, what business does the federal government have attempting to dictate costly management programs when state agencies remain the long-standing experts on wildlife management within their jurisdictions?
Although livestock depredation programs exist, funds paid to ranchers are typically slow to disperse. These funds also fail to accurately account for the future production potential and genetic materials lost during depredations. In 2021, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported 127 wolf kills and three “probable” wolf kills. The first quarter is the only one listed for 2022 and includes January, February, and March. The first three months of 2022 saw 52 confirmed wolf depredations on livestock and one probable wolf kill. The numbers reported are only those that can be confirmed after investigations as wolf kills.
Annual surveys conducted in the winter account for a 2021 population of at least 196 Mexican gray wolves in New Mexico and Arizona. Undoubtedly, a population of undocumented wolves exists. Additionally, another couple hundred wolves are held in captive-breeding facilities throughout the United States and Mexico. These numbers become problematic upon reviewing the original recovery plan that stated this prime objective: “To conserve and ensure the survival of Canis lupus Bailey by maintaining a captive breeding program and re-establishing a viable, self-sustaining population of at least 100 wolves in middle to high elevations of a 5,000-square-mile area within the Mexican wolf’s historic range.”
Ranchers have been raising an eyebrow at the viability of captive breeding programs for a while now, asking questions such as do captive breeding programs accurately represent the traditional genetic diversity of the Mexican gray wolf? And, do captive breeding programs produce truly wild wolves? With no end in sight for reintroduction programs and the species’ growth, USFWS has attempted to revise plans three times in 1995, 2003, and 2010. During revisions, the agency has failed to address criteria for determining recovery and delisting as well as to identify specific areas where recovery can occur.
The Arizona Game and Fish Department has been an active participant in managing the recently re-listed Endangered Species since the species’ first release in 1998. The department currently funds five full-time biologist positions, field team leaders, depredation specialists, and more. Despite being a federally-listed species, Arizona remains the primary agency conducting day-to-day management of wolves in Arizona.
State biologists have argued that wolf reintroduction to Arizona and New Mexico has placed them in the Northernmost part of their historical range. The journal Biological Conservation published a perspective on the perils of recovering the Mexican wolf outside of its historical range in 2017, writing, “Early accounts of its range included the Sierra Madre Occidental of Mexico, southeastern Arizona, southwestern New Mexico, and sometimes western Texas, supported by ecological, biogeographic, and morphological data. There have been multiple unsuccessful attempts to revise the original 1982 recovery plan and identify areas suitable for Mexican wolf reintroduction. Despite the fact that 90% of its historical range is in Mexico and widespread suitable habitat exists there, previous draft recovery plans recommended recovery mostly outside of Mexico and well north of the subspecies’ historical range. Planning recovery outside the historical range of this subspecies is fraught with problems …”