By Susan Montoya Bryan
Published: Saturday, Jan. 8, 2011 10:50 a.m. MST
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Another year has passed and the effort to return the endangered Mexican gray wolf to the Southwest is no closer to marking success than when federal wildlife officials first set out with their lofty goals decades ago.
But this year is going to be different. It’s going to be what U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southwest director Benjamin Tuggle calls “a watershed year,” and at the top of his list is bringing together scientists, conservationists, ranchers and others to develop a much-needed roadmap for the wolf’s recovery.
“We have battled this demon a very long time and finally we’ve gotten the go-ahead in a number of ways. It is my firm belief that we’re going to make some significant progress,” Tuggle told The Associated Press in an interview.
The effort to return the wolves to the wild in New Mexico and Arizona has been hampered by illegal shootings, court battles, complaints from ranchers who have lost livestock and pets to the wolves, and concerns by environmentalists over the way the reintroduction program has been managed.
In 2010, there were six wolf deaths. All but one involved suspicious circumstances.
Two lawsuits were filed — one by conservationists and the other by ranching groups and two southern New Mexico counties.
A few New Mexico lawmakers pushed unsuccessfully to get state game officials to help reduce conflicts between wolves and livestock, and a dozen congressional lawmakers requested that federal officials make changes in the program and consider releasing more wolves into the wild.
The goal this year, Tuggle said, will be finding balance between science and the impact of management actions on people in the region. That balance has eluded the program since the federal government began releasing Mexican wolves along the Arizona-New Mexico border in 1998.
“It’s not going to be easy,” Tuggle said. “You’ve got these divergent groups that are very opinionated.”
The Mexican gray wolf, a subspecies of the gray wolf, once roamed New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and Mexico. As more people began to settle in the Southwest, conflict arose between the wolves, people and livestock. Hunting and government-sponsored extermination campaigns all but wiped out the wolf.
The wolf was added to the federal endangered species list in 1976 and a captive-breeding program was started. A recovery plan was adopted in 1982 and the first 11 wolves were released in March 1998.
Biologists had hoped to have more than 100 wolves in the wild by 2006. At the beginning of 2010, the count was 42.
With the annual wolf survey starting in less than two weeks, wildlife managers hope they can spot more wolves on the snowy landscape. There’s hope since pups were spotted with a few packs during the fall.
The survey involves a spotter plane, a helicopter, radio telemetry equipment and ground support.
“The thing that helps us get a really accurate number is the fact that we have a lot of collared wolves compared to the total number of wolves on the ground. Being that wolves are pack animals, it’s pretty easy to find them,” said Wally Murphy, a Fish and Wildlife Service supervisor in New Mexico.
Neither Murphy nor Tuggle wanted to venture a guess at how many wolves might be out there.
“We expect it will improve,” Murphy said. “How much it will improve is yet to be seen.”
Aside from the count, the focus this year is on releasing more captive wolves, finding more money for an interdiction fund to help ranchers with livestock depredations and developing a new recovery plan.
A team of scientists, state and federal wildlife managers, tribal officials and other stakeholders is being assembled to hash out details of the plan. The first meeting is expected in February, and Tuggle hopes to have a plan ready for public review in a year.
Eva Lee Sargent of the group Defenders of Wildlife said she believes more people would be willing to get on board if the recovery goals — and the means to getting there — were clearly spelled out.
“What the program really needs is to be based on science and not based on the squeaky wheel and politics,” she said.
Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association, said her group appreciates what Tuggle is trying to do but finding middle ground will be difficult if environmentalists continue to push for establishing wolf populations in more areas and bringing an end to grazing permits on national forest land.
Cowan said the balance between having wolves in the wild and ranchers continuing with their livelihood will not come down to a number, but rather to how the wolves are managed.
“We live with other predators. There are coyotes out there, there are bears, there are lions, but we’re able to manage them and we certainly have not extirpated all of those predators. But when you find an offending one, you have to have the ability to deal with it,” she said. “That’s the frustration with the wolf situation.”
Cowan and Sargent said fixing the problems will take more than a year, but everyone is willing to try.
Tuggle acknowledges that mistakes have been made, but he said officials are learning from them.
Tuggle remembers the first time he saw a Mexican gray wolf. It was in a captive facility. He said could imagine that animal roaming the Gila National Forest or somewhere else.
“I’ve heard wolves in the wild, I’ve seen them in the wild, and I have a full appreciation of that species and the charismatic nature of that species and that’s what really motivates me in terms of the Mexican gray wolf. I see the potential of what this species can be on the landscape.”
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