Bullies get their way in New Mexico's wolf recovery program

  • Laura Paskus


There’s a sign near my house that reads, “Don’t just stand there, Stop Bullying!” I remember being teased by the cool girls in middle school during the 1980s. Having survived adolescence, I naively assumed that pint-sized tormenters mature before reaching adulthood. But not always: Adult bullies employing the tactics of gossip, misinformation and fear have triumphed in New Mexico.
On June 9, the New Mexico Game and Fish Commission voted to end the state’s participation in the Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Program. That program is the federal government’s attempt to restore wolves to an area straddling Arizona and New Mexico. The effort has been anything but easy, as wolves have been shot, poisoned, transferred from the wild into captivity and “disappeared” throughout their range.

In the 1980s, the federal government set the goal of establishing a minimum population of 100 wolves within their historic range. It was anticipated that the canines would reach that number in 2006. Currently, there are just 50 wolves.

New Mexico’s abandonment of Mexican wolves was not a surprise given last year’s election of Gov. Susana Martinez, the Republican who replaced Democrat Bill Richardson. Since she took office, she has made appointments to several state commissions that helped consolidate power in the hands of industry and anti-regulation representatives. Her administration has also directed the reorganization of the state’s Environment Department, choking off some of its best programs. As for the New Mexico Game and Fish Commission, four of its seven members are her new appointees; one also serves as a board member of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association.
When bullies speak, Gov. Martinez listens. Just prior to the Game Commission’s vote on wolves, for instance, anti-wolf activists as well as the Catron County Commissioners sent letters to the state wildlife commission and Gov. Martinez accusing wolves of putting their children and ranching livelihoods at risk. The critics went to far as to distribute a disturbing photo of a child in a wood and wire cage – a cage that was designed to keep him safe from wolves while waiting for the school bus.
If the recent vote to withdraw support for wolves was no surprise, it remains a serious blow. Somewhat surprisingly, the state’s wildlife department had become an effective advocate for wolf recovery. In 2008 and 2009, it opposed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s plans to remove wolves suspected of preying on livestock. Thanks to that stance, the federal agency changed its policy, and those two wolf packs still live in the wild where they have not been preying on livestock.
Now that the state wildlife commission is no longer a partner in the federal wolf recovery program, the department’s role has become murky. The state will apparently refuse any federal money to fund employees to work on the program, and the state’s representatives will no longer participate in the recovery team. The details are still unclear.

But the wildlife department must continue to enforce state and federal wildlife laws within New Mexico’s boundaries, and it must investigate wolf shootings and killings as criminal cases. The department had applied for a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grant to pay 50 percent of the reimbursement promised for livestock killed by wolves; department spokesman Lance Cherry says the state is now exploring options on how to administer that grant without using its own staff.

It seems clear that the commission’s decision to surrender to the bullies was rash. But while Tom Buckley, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, calls the state’s decision “unfortunate,” he insists the wolf recovery program will continue -- albeit short-staffed.

However, Michael Robinson, a staffer with the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, which has sought the return of Mexican wolves for decades, worries that the government will resume its predator control program and start removing “problem” wolves from the wild. It’s “not because the biology has changed,” he says, “but because we have different elected officials.”
When public officials are so easily influenced, creating and managing a sound policy becomes impossible. It’s equally unfortunate that scientists employed by state and federal agencies lack the courage to publicly defend their work and the species they are trying to recover. Until strong, intelligent voices drown out the blowhards, emotions will rule, politicians will call the shots and the public will be confused and frightened by rumor and misinformation.
This is cause for outrage, not apathy or despair. “It’s reasonable to be pessimistic about wolf politics and management,” says Robinson. “It’s not reasonable based on their biology.”

He’s right: Let’s not forget that the Southwest’s wolves survived many years of strychnine poisoning and government bounties. Surely, they can survive the bullies, too.

Laura Paskus is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of
High Country News (hcn.org). She is writer in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

Wendy Beye
Wendy Beye
Jun 30, 2011 11:06 AM
Sounds as if New Mexico's administrators are taking their cues from Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and now Oregon. Wild-eyed hysteria over a creature that hasn't attacked a human once in the lower 48.
George McCloskey
George McCloskey
Jul 01, 2011 09:30 PM
Well, actually there have been many attacks. But that's not a reason to insure that the Wolfe takes a place next to the bear, mountain lion, and man as high order predators in the SW. Bring back the Wolfe, but manage their populations and dismiss the myths that surround their species. They are a high order predator that must be managed.
Larry Audsley
Larry Audsley
Jul 05, 2011 03:09 PM
I agree with Mr. McCloskey. Bring back the wolf, but manage their populations. I believe this could be done left in the hands of sincere and honorable people.

HCN is in the habit of generating its own brand of wild-eyed hysteria and name-calling. Bullies? Blowhards? Is that what Laura Paskus calls anyone whose opposing view prevails over hers?

While it's true there has been some sensationalizing in regard to wolf behavior and threats to humans, opponents and skeptics nevertheless have many valid concerns that need to be addressed and mitigated.

I welcome Ms. Paskus's call for intelligent voices. I also look forward to the day when she begins providing such a voice herself and helps us examine the real issues beyond the myths. Until then, we will have the condition Ms. Paskus has identified and, ironically, promotes: emotions will rule.
Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder Subscriber
Jul 05, 2011 06:15 PM
Having grown up in McKinley County, I'm quite familiar with the hyperconservative problems of Catron County. Why don't we up grazing fees to "manage" the cow population there, George and Larry?
Dave Kangas
Dave Kangas Subscriber
Jul 06, 2011 08:04 AM
With the ongoing issues managing wolves in the Northern Rockies and the Great Lakes region, this sounds like preventative maintenance to me. The Federal Courts, the pro-wolf advocates and the FWS have not shown themselves capable of creating and agreeing to sound management plans. Create the plan that survives court actions, then move forward with propagating or controlling the wolves, whcihever is appropriate, not the other way around. Arizona and New Mexico make a lot of money from non resident hunters and cattle ranching, why jeapardize that unnecessarily?
Larry Audsley
Larry Audsley
Jul 06, 2011 11:18 AM
The suggestion to raise grazing fees so as to "manage" the cow population sounds like a proposal to remove grazing from federal public lands. As one who treasures our national forests and BLM lands, I don't think that's a good idea in the long run.

National forests and BLM lands are held in public trust for multiple uses aimed at benefiting all Americans. These uses include providing minerals, timber, recreation, watershed and grazing. Except for Congressionally designated wilderness and national conservation areas, the mission of our federal lands is that of working landscapes. Because ongoing conflicts between user/interest groups are inevitable and a permanent fixture, the challenge for the public is to keep in check the users who are constantly striving to subvert the multiple use mandate into a single use of their own liking. We can best do this by rewarding cooperative behavior and withholding rewards (and occasionally doling out punishment) to users who refuse to play nicely with others.

There are some, no doubt including many HCN readers, who would like to shift the federal lands mandate toward nature preservation and away from other uses. If successful, I believe that would eventually lead to privatization because I don't believe the present amount of federally owned lands could be justified. Already there are pressures to sell off some of these lands for development and get them on the tax rolls.

Similarly, some in the ranching community also have problems grasping this multiple use concept. But while they've been beaten to death on this grazing fee issue, that's only a small part of the picture and receives way too much attention. It's true that public lands grazing fees are a fraction of private lands grazing fees, but the comparison isn't entirely fair for a number of reasons, including the premise that livestock grazers are expected to share the land with other users. In reality, many have been successful in locking out other users blocking access across small parcels of privately owned land, and neither BLM nor the FS will make granting public right-of-way a condition of federal grazing leases. Consequently there are vast areas in the West where the public cannot access its own land to hunt, fish, visit historical sites or simply go hiking. This effectively converts the land to private use, and some landowners further exploit the situation by granting access only to friends, relatives, business associates, politicians and hunting/fishing guides with whom they have contracts. Although technically legal, I believe this is very wrong and that the granting and pricing of grazing leases should become a tool for correcting this situation.

But it's hard to bring together two opposing parties with presumptions of greatest moral authority. Many of the ranchers whose families have worked these lands for generations and have a financial stake in the game have understandably developed a sense of entitlement, if not de facto ownership. Money can fix a lot of things, but principle can be impossible to negotiate. Wolf-lovers, public lands access activists like myself and multi-generational ranchers all have our principles, which makes things difficult enough without throwing around invectives like "bully" and "blowhard," and without suggesting cows should managed off the landscape by rasining grazing fees.
Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder Subscriber
Jul 06, 2011 04:07 PM
Wrong, Larry. It's just that ranchers should pay the same on federal land as they do on equivalent land of private ownership. And right now, they don't even pay close to the same. There's plenty of socialists in "libertarian, American individualist" Catron County and elsewhere in the west. You're right on the sense of entitlement. And the fees itself are related to larger environmental issues such as soil erosion that have been further exacerbated by the AGW that many of those same ranchers, tuned to Faux News, deny.