Already stained by the blood of dead wolves and suffering from a variety of other setbacks, the program to reintroduce endangered Mexican gray wolves to the Southwest is now at the center of two criminal investigations. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is formally looking into the disappearance of two wolves in New Mexico and a rancher’s claim that he intentionally baited wolves in order to get them killed.
“We had requests that we do a criminal investigation, and we
are,” says agency spokeswoman Elizabeth Slown. In an
interview last year, New Mexico ranch hand Mike Miller told High
Country News that he deliberately baited a wolf with cattle in
order to trigger the federal “three strikes” rule,
which mandates the shooting or capturing of any wolf that kills
three cows in one year’s time.
Miller’s statements — which appeared in the Dec. 24,
2007, edition of the publication -- took agency employees by
surprise. A coalition of environmental groups immediately demanded
“I don’t think we had ever
considered before the possibility that somebody might actually lure
the wolf to the point the wolves actually commit strikes,”
Slown says. “We had not considered that people would do
something underhanded in order to bring about a wolf being removed.
Maybe that was just incredibly naïve on our part.”
Miller works for the 275,000-acre Adobe-Slash Ranch,
which is owned by Mexican businessman Eloy Vallina. Miller, who has
an unlisted number, could not be reached for comment, and Gene
Whetten, his supervisor, declined to answer questions when
contacted by HCN on Feb. 26.
“Mr. Miller works for
me and he’s forbidden to talk to you,” Whetten says. He
alleges that the paper “fabricated” most of its story,
and that the ranch is considering legal action against HCN.
The criminal investigations face significant challenges,
according to a Fish and Wildlife source. In interviews with law
enforcement officials, Miller reportedly denied making the
statements attributed to him by HCN. Furthermore, according to the
Interior Department, the fact that Miller branded cattle on private
land within half a mile of a known wolf den does not in itself
violate federal wolf reintroduction rules, which give ranchers wide
leeway in how they operate even when wolves are nearby.
“The corral is located on private land and use of it for
working cattle in this manner is consistent with annual ranch
operations,” Interior Deputy Director Kenneth Stansell said
in a Feb. 22 letter to environmentalists.
The HCN article
and the subsequent investigations have led the group Defenders of
Wildlife to suspend compensation payments to the Adobe-Slash Ranch
for cattle killed by wolves, says Craig Miller, the
Defenders’ Southwest representative. The group is withholding
$7,400 in compensation for nine cattle that were killed last fall.
Those killings resulted in the Fish and Wildlife Service removing
the most genetically valuable Mexican gray wolf pack from the
recovery area. This was done after agency officials learned of Mike
Miller’s wolf-baiting statements.
certainly caused us to take a closer look at whether our
compensation program is achieving the level of tolerance (for
wolves) that was originally intended,” Craig Miller says.
“In this case, the compensation program may be serving as a
The Defenders of Wildlife had
already paid the Adobe-Slash ranch $2,400 for a cow and calf that
were killed by wolves last June. Miller later told HCN that he
deliberately left the cow and newborn calf where he did after he
had detected wolves nearby using a radio receiver provided by the
Fish and Wildlife Service. That night, a wolf killed the cows,
thereby racking up its third strike. Federal hunters shot it on
July 5, over the objections of the New Mexico Game and Fish
Department. Fish and Wildlife criminal investigators are also
looking into the disappearance of two radio-collared wolves that
were last located in November 2007 on the Adobe-Slash, in the
northeast corner of the Gila National Forest.
it’s very unusual for two collared wolves to vanish without
any signal from the radio transmitters. The transmitters send out
an alert if a wolf stops moving, allowing field personnel to locate
injured or dead animals. In this instance, the radio receivers on
both wolves appear to have failed, fueling speculation that someone
shot the wolves and destroyed their radio collars. The
agency’s investigation faces an uphill challenge because the
wolves’ bodies have never been found. The investigations
coincide with the agency’s announcement that the number of
Mexican gray wolves in the recovery area has declined from 59 a
year ago to 52 today. That’s about half the number biologists
had expected to be in the wild by now.
survey also found only four breeding pairs of wolves, far below the
expected 18 pairs. The Fish and Wildlife Service authorized the
removal of 22 wolves last year, mostly for preying on livestock or
straying from the 7,000-square-mile recovery area, which straddles
the Arizona-New Mexico border. No new wolves were released into the
area in 2007.
Michael Robinson of the Tucson-based Center
for Biological Diversity says the agency needs to change its
reintroduction rules to give wolves the same protection afforded to
other animals under the Endangered Species Act. Currently, the
wolves are considered an “experimental, nonessential
population,” a designation that allows the government to kill
or trap and remove any that kill livestock.
the agency is reviewing its wolf reintroduction rules and preparing
a new environmental impact statement that may provide more
protection. Still, it will be at least a year before the proposed
rules are released for public comment.
In addition to the
wolves removed from the field by the Fish and Wildlife Service, at
least 35 others have been taken illegally in the wild since the
program began in March 1998. Most were killed by shooting, although
a few were struck by vehicles whose drivers failed to report the
incident as required by law.
In a Jan. 3 letter to
Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, a coalition of environmental
groups said that the high rate of wolf poaching and suspicious
disappearances “strongly suggests” that the Fish and
Wildlife Service’s efforts to “conciliate” the
livestock industry are actually causing an increase in the number
of wolf deaths.
The groups asked Kempthorne to order an
independent investigation of “the possible role of the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service in facilitating illegal take” of
the wolves. Interior Deputy Director Stansell responded that the
request “has been taken under advisement.”
The coalition also asked Kempthorne to direct the agency to
confiscate the radio receivers it had given to ranchers and county
governments. This would limit the ability of locals opposed to wolf
reintroduction to monitor the whereabouts of wolves. Slown says the
agency has no plans at this time to do so.
author is a contributing editor for High Country