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Endangered Mexican gray wolves get room to roam

RESERVE, New Mexico – “We’ve got a wolf coming in!” Susan Dicks yelled.

A veterinarian and biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Dicks was in an open field about 30 minutes outside of Reserve, a village of 300 in western New Mexico. Along side her were other agency veterinarians as well as volunteers and interns.

Everyone stopped what they were doing and scrambles to get ready. A mat was laid out in a truck bed, syringes were pulled from supply bags and a data recorder was assigned.

They all turned at the distant sound of a helicopter. It landed and out came a veterinarian holding a limp Mexican gray wolf.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was conducting its annual Mexican wolf count.

John Oakleaf, incident commander for the Mexican Wolf Project, said everything runs in stages.

As a spotter plane found the location of a wolf pack, the helicopter flew under the plane to count the number of wolves in a pack. A select few had radio collars on them.

“Those are the animals they target from the helicopter,” Oakleaf said.

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Once a wolf was targeted, the darter took over, tranquilizing the animal with a drug that knocked it out for around two hours.

The wolf was muzzled and placed on the open truck bed. Then veterinarians moved in to begin processing it.

“I tend to get very focused on the animal. What is the body temperature of the animal? What is the status of the animal?” Dicks said.

The wolf was weighed, vaccinations were given and an intern took measurements. Its teeth were checked, and its blood was drawn for testing. The wolf was then placed in a kennel before it fully regained consciousness.

Employees of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service then drove it up the mountain and released it back into the wild to find its pack.

“Wolves are wonderful at finding other wolves. Through howling, scent, they’ll put down scat— wolves travel long distances and end up with other wolves somehow,” Oakleaf said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has conducted counts on Mexican gray wolves since 1998, as part of an effort to reintroduce the species to Arizona and New Mexico.

“We started with only seven wolves,” said Sherry Barrett, Mexican wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “From those seven wolves we built a captive breeding population that now hovers between 215 and 300 animals.”

Approximately 80 wolves run free in the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area, which spans from Arizona to New Mexico.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service just announced a revised rule, set to take effect Feb. 17, that expands the area in which the wolves can freely roam.

“We did this to allow the population to grow. Our old area is not large enough for the population to grow without increasing density in those areas. Even with an increase in density, it wouldn’t grow much,” Barrett said.

The Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area currently includes the Apache and Gila national forests. Under the new rules, wolves can occupy any one of three zones.

Wolves may be initially released and naturally disperse into Zone One: the Apache, Gila and Sitgreaves national forests; the Payson, Pleasant Valley and Tonto Basin Ranger Districts of the Tonto National Forest; and the Magdalena Ranger District of the Cibola National Forest.

Zone Two has been designated as the Mexican Wolf Experimental Population Area. Only pups younger than five months old will be initially released in this area, but wolves can be relocated here later.

Zone Three takes up the entire area south of Flagstaff and Albuquerque in Arizona and New Mexico. No initial releases or relocations will occur here, but wolves may run freely in this area.

“Zone Three is a limited habitat,” Barrett said. “We don’t expect the wolves to go there, but if they do, they can run freely. We just might be a little bit more aggressive in that area when it comes to the management of them.”

Some ranchers in the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area say that the current area occupied by wolves already poses a financial problem.

Criag Thiesen purchased his ranch in 2011. The previous owners were selling it for a significantly low price.

“Wolves were killing the cows, and they just couldn’t take it,” Thiesen said.

Twenty-eight cows were killed by predators in 2013, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The government has been compensating ranchers for their losses since the Mexican gray wolf project was formulated, but the funds aren’t evenly distributed, Thiesen said.

“They always tell you they don’t have enough money. They spend between $1 million and $4 million per wolf,” Thiesen said. “I’ve lost $750,000, and they have given me $15,000 something. They’re definitely not spending it on us.”

In order to be compensated for loss of cattle, the government in Carton County, where Reserve is located, does a thorough investigation. Often the remains are too decomposed to identify a cause.

Oakleaf said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is willing to work with the ranchers. He said he understands the wolves have an impact, but he said he wants to help find a solution for both parties.

“There is an old saying: The closer you are to wolves the less you like them,” Oakleaf said.“There is good reason. If it costs you money, you are less likely to appreciate it. Every one is an independent business, so you work with the individual rancher and discuss positive solutions —or things that that rancher thinks will work on his particular lot.”

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Latest comments on this storyRead all 5 »

5
318 comments
Feb 10, 2015, 10:51 am
-1 +0

In three decades around $28 million spent on the program to reintroduce the wolf.

4
25 comments
Feb 7, 2015, 4:13 pm
-0 +3

Agreed. The conservation solution rests on the shoulders of the top predator, man.

3
25 comments
Feb 7, 2015, 2:40 pm
-1 +2

Ranchers do far more good for the environment and ecosystem than given credit for.  Far more, in fact, than the pseudo environmentalists who like to bash them.

However, they, like many hunters, exaggerate greatly the impact of wolves on their livelihood and prey species herd size and health.

There is room for both.  I have camped and hunted in wolf country, and the sound of a wolf howling at night is an awesomely eerie sound that you never forget.

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Laura Sposato/Cronkite News

A Mexican gray wolf lay unconscious on an open truck bed after being tranquilized and brought to the drop site for processing.