Wolves Previously Removed from Wild for Depredations, Now Killing Cattle on Ladder Ranch’s Neighboring Properties
By Etta Pettijohn
Two weeks prior to a court-ordered deadline to revise the Mexican Gray Wolf Management Plan, Sierra County ranchers are getting a preview of what could become commonplace with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) proposed changes.
Two ranches in Sierra County had confirmed livestock kills week before last, by a pair of wolves that had been removed from a ranch in neighboring Catron County after being involved inseveral cattle deaths there.
But this time federal officials say they won’t be removed, which makes it likely more ranchers in this county will see additional depredations.
The Mexican gray wolf was listed as an endangered subspecies under the ESA in 1976, and in 1982 FWS released its first “recovery plan”.
Population estimates by the FWS indicate there were at least 196 wolves in the Blue Range Recovery Area in 2021; 112 in New Mexico and 84 in Arizona. There was a five percent increase in the population in 2021, the sixth consecutive year of increases.
The previous goal was for the U.S. wolf population to reach 320, and to boost the number to 170 in Mexico, before they couldbe downgraded from the endangered status.
In 2018 several environmental organizations sued FWS, claiming the agency failed in its 2015 Plan to meet the basic requirements of the Endangered Species Act, to provide specific objectives and measurable recovery criteria to prevent illegal killing of the species.
A federal judge remanded the case back to the agency, claiming the rule fails to further the long-term recovery of the these in the wild.
Under the court order, FWS has until April 14, 2022, to complete draft revisions, and until July 1, 2022, to present final revisions of the management rule.
To make the rule compliant with the ruling, FWS is proposing several changes, which fall within the Nonessential Experimental Population rule for Mexican wolves, also called the 10(j) rule.
Proposed revisions include: removing the recovery population cap (formerly 325 animals); assessing the health of the population by monitoring a simple numerical metric — if at least 22 captive cross-fostered pups survive to breeding age, two years old, in the wild; prohibiting states from killing wolves because of effects on elk and deer populations; and no longer allowing livestock owners to kill wolves in the act of attacking livestock on federal land. The agency would also would stop granting permits to private landowners to kill wolves on their land.
Media tycoon Ted Turner’s Ladder Ranch has long providedpenned sites for the wolves’ captive breeding through the Turner Endangered Species Fund. These were later released into federally-owned property in the Gila National Forest.
In addition, the ranch hosts luxury tours, bringing people from across the globe to view the multitude of wildlife and beautiful scenery. The ranch has been instrumental in reviving several endangered species, and ranch employees sport bumper stickers on their vehicles reading, “Save Everything.”
In the past agency rules required FWS to remove wolves from the wild — and either killed or placed into captivity — after several confirmed depredations.
The wolf pair involved in the Catron County depredations were placed in captivity for that reason last year, and assigned numbers M1693 (male) and F1728 (female). M1693, which is considered a genetically valuable wolf, was confirmed to have killed seven cows and a horse, and was documented in one human encounter. Almost all these kills occurred on deeded, privately-owned land. The female, 1728, also had three confirmed kills of livestock.
Two months later the pair and six of their pups were released on the Ladder, the first time the agency has releasedwolves on private land.
The 2015 regulations revision states the FWS may develop management actions for the species in cooperation with private landowners, if requested by a landowner and in concurrence with the state game agency.
The revision notice also states, “Ted Turner and the Turner Endangered Species Fund have requested the translocation of an adult pair of wolves with dependent pups on the Ladder Ranch.”
FWS notified Sierra County Commissioners about the Ladder releases on the 243 square-mile ranch via email May 3, 2021, setting a May 24 deadline for public comment. In the correspondence the agency never mentioned the wolves had previously been removed from the wild for depredations. Theagency didn’t notify the local cattle growers’ organization, or the nearby towns of T or C, Williamsburg or Elephant Butte.
The Commissioners and four nearby landowners are asking the U.S. District Court for New Mexico to determine if the FWS violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), releasingthe animals less than five miles from the closest ranching operation, and contend it was done without stakeholder analysis, or adequate public notice or input, a violation of agency policy and law.
There are 31 livestock operators west of I-25 and east of the Continental Divide in Sierra County, according to the County Assessor’s office. Their livestock numbers total about 6,000 head of cattle and approximately 112 horses.
The controversial Mexican Gray Wolf reintroduction has been a lucrative fundraising tool for several environmental agencies for decades.
Dozens of lawsuits have been filed the past three decades,forcing the FWS to manage the wolves mostly by court order.Lawyers for these groups have raked in millions from a government program, the Equal Access to Justice Act, that pays the plaintiffs in court cases.
There are those today who cherish the possibility of viewing a wolf in the wild, or to hear a pack howling. Wildlife viewing is a fast-growing tourism segment.
Then there are those who say they are facing a loss of their livelihoods; who live and work where the newly-established populations dwell. Many of these ranchers not only lose their property (livestock), but also the inheritance for their heirs, on ranches their families worked for several generations.
To have $400 (value of a calf), $800 (heifer) and $1,200 (bred cow) taken by the government in two days would be a cost few people could handle for an extended time. Especially if your business is as elk hunting outfitters and cattle ranchers.
That is what Bob and Jennafer Daugherty do for a living. After losing $2,400 in a week — not counting the value of future calves the cow could have bred — their nerves are frayed. They are also concerned about their property values. Nobody wants to buy a working ranch in the middle of livestock-killing wolf packs, they contend.
This past Sunday Jennafer said the collared M1693 and F1728, one of which is confirmed to have made the other depredations, came back through their property, and there “are wolves running all over our place.” She is expecting more losses.
Matt and Laura Schneberger own a ranch near the Beaverhead area. They just lost a prized pet Ankole-Watusi cow, which wasn’t their first loss from wolves. That animal was one they hoped would give them extra protection, as are the special breed of dogs they are raising. The Schnebergers have been losing livestock for years, despite using a range rider, and hazing to move wolves off their property.
The environmentalists like to point out that a rancher who loses cattle can be reimbursed by the Mexican Gray Wolf Livestock Coexistence Council. What they don’t say is that they are reimbursed only if the kill is confirmed as being done by a wolf. There is also no reimbursement for future reproduction.
Most ranches are extensive (thousands of acres), and the wolves’ presence isn’t known until the rancher finds a decomposed carcass, which often means federal officials are unable to determine if it is a wolf kill or another predator, and where the ranchers receive no compensation from the New Mexico Livestock Council or the Farm Service Agency.
The current estimated 196 wolves seriously impacted ranchers in Catron County, and no doubt will on those here. With new regulations lifting the cap on the number of them required to remove the endangered listing, it will undoubtedly only get worse.
If it’s not the spotted owl or wolves they will fin another endangered species. The Center for Biological whatever will make bundles off of it. Mostly public funds through lawsuits. And the federal agencies will gladly hand it under the table.