SAFFORD, Ariz. - As reintroduction of the endangered Mexican wolf begins its fourth year in Arizona and New Mexico, many ranchers and other local residents are still fighting it. Now they have the Arizona Game and Fish Commission on their side.

In mid-May, the commission met in this small eastern Arizona town to review the state's involvement in the federal program. The meeting attracted about 125 people, including dozens of environmentalists who traveled hundreds of miles to participate.

About one-third of the perhaps 75 or so people who spoke were anti-wolf, and most of them lived in or near the sparsely populated recovery zone. Some opponents said that elitist urban environmentalists and an out-of-touch federal bureaucracy were upending their lives; several snidely suggested relocating the wolves to Mount Lemmon near Tucson or the Superstition Mountains near Phoenix.

But wolf supporters argued that three independent public opinion polls taken in the past decade show majority support for wolf reintroduction in both Arizona and New Mexico. Only 200 Mexican wolves survive in the world. While support is generally lower in rural areas, a 1995 poll in southern New Mexico found majority support for the return of el lobo in the four counties surrounding a proposed reintroduction site.

The commission members, who are appointed by the governor to oversee the Arizona Fish and Game Department, let loose with their own criticisms at the end of the nearly five-hour meeting. In a 4-1 vote, they demanded that public meetings be held in small, rural towns rather than bigger cities. They asked the federal government to reimburse the state for any wolf-related damage claims, a demand which federal lawyers are now evaluating.

And they opposed any new release sites in the state - a mostly symbolic position, since no new release sites are currently planned for Arizona. Commissioner Joe Carter said he would give the federal government the "benefit of the doubt" before deciding what to do if the commission's demands aren't met. But supporters worry that the vote sets the stage for the state's eventual withdrawal.

"Preconditions for failure"

The wolf reintroduction effort is primarily a federal endeavor, with Arizona contributing only one-third of the $900,000 cost so far. But the state plays a vital role in the day-to-day management of the animals, providing three full-time biologists and aerial monitoring.

Arizona's most recent swipe at the wolf program came a week after a trio of independent scientists released a fairly optimistic preliminary three-year review of the program. The researchers say the program is on target to reach the goal of 100 wolves by 2008, with an estimated 27 to 31 now roaming the rugged, pine-covered Blue Range on the Arizona-New Mexico border. The captive-bred wolves, which have formed five packs, are taking down elk and have produced 18 pups.

Skeptics doubted the program would ever get as far as it has. Six of the wolves have been shot; in two cases, shooters claimed self-defense, while no arrests have been made in the other four cases. Ten wolves are known to have died in the wild, four are missing and 20 have been recaptured after harming livestock or straying from the recovery zone.

The panel of scientists cautions that without some changes, the program could ultimately fail. It recommends giving the wolves more space; recapturing and relocating them less often; instilling a fear of humans by firing bean bags at them; and releasing new wolves in areas where there aren't existing packs.

Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity argues that the Arizona Game and Fish Commission's actions fly in the face of this advice. Science dictates that wolves need more release sites, not fewer, and Robinson says the animals shouldn't be subject to traumatic trappings and relocations if they expand their range.

The commission is "trying to set up the preconditions for failure," Robinson says. "Wolves can't read lines on a map drawn by politicians. They need to roam and occupy suitable habitat if they're going to survive."

Since Arizona Gov. Jane Hull, a Republican, has never officially taken a position on wolf reintroduction, the commission essentially speaks for the state. Though Arizona's opposition could cause the Bush administration to re-evaluate the federal role in Mexican wolf reintroduction, Tom Bauer, assistant regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says he hasn't heard of any waning federal support for the program. He notes that new Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton has shown "a personal interest" in endangered species recovery by recently attending a release ceremony for California condors.

Bauer hopes the agency will be able to accommodate Arizona's demands.

"It appears to me this is all very workable and we'll be able to continue the same strong partnership," he says.

 

Mitch Tobin covers water and environmental issues for the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson.


You can contact ...

  • Arizona Game and Fish Department, 602/942-3000;
  • Michael Robinson at the Center for Biological Diversity in New Mexico, 505/534-0360;
  • USFWS Southwest Region Ecological Division, Region 2, 505/248-6920, mexicanwolf.fws.gov.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Mitch Tobin