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Big Bad Wolves

Mexican Grey wolves have been spotted lurking on the outskirts of Flagstaff after migrating from a release area on the Arizona New Mexico Border. The wolves have been traveling in packs on the urban wildland interface. Arizona Daily Sun/Staff Photo

The city of Flagstaff has signed a federal agreement to become the first Wolf Sanctuary City in Arizona.

The contract with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service comes as night infrared cameras have picked up images of endangered Mexican gray wolves from the White Mountains migrating through Flagstaff.

The wolves are from the Alpha pack and are believed to be headed for the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Others are expected to follow.

The agreement comes amid fears by Fish & Wildlife that state wildlife managers will attempt to capture and remove any endangered wolf that wanders outside the recovery zone.

“This is a win-win deal,” said Mayor Jerry Nabours. “The wolves get safe passage and Flagstaff gets another tourist attraction, even if the packs are just passing through.”

State Rep. Bob Thorpe has introduced legislation seeking to “deport” Mexican gray wolves as a nonnative species that he contends have been introduced to Arizona illegally.

“If you read the Endangered Species Act, the animals were intended to be introduced only cooperatively,” Thorpe said.

Instead, he said the wolves were forced on Arizona by environmentalist lawsuits.

STRUGGLED TO GAIN FOOTHOLD

The Mexican wolf population has struggled to gain a foothold in the White Mountains since being reintroduced into the wild in 1998. The animals are often shot by ranchers who fear for their livestock.

But North America’s most endangered mammal has taken kindly to Flagstaff and its approach to wolf rights.

The Arizona Department of Transportation’s infrared night vision cameras recently captured photos of the wolves entering Flagstaff. The wolves were traveling using the FUTS tunnels beneath major roadways, which Flagstaff officials now hope to make more “wolf-friendly.”

Thorpe said that state game wardens have been the only thing keeping the animals from taking over the entire state, so it’s only a matter of time before the welcoming city is overrun.

But biologists think the wolves’ likely destination isn’t Flagstaff at all, but the deer-rich forests on the Grand Canyon’s North Rim.

A Northern Arizona University study recently showed that the wolves are using the Little Colorado River corridor to migrate.

Billy Babbitt, president of Babbitt Ranches, says his cowboys tell him they’ve seen the Alpha pack moving that way now for weeks. Once they reach the national park, the animals will be under the purview of the federal government and out of state hands.

Earlier this year, residents in the Coyote Springs neighborhood off Fort Valley Road said they were not alarmed to learn that mountain lions had been eating deer in their backyards. But a laboratory analysis done by the Arizona Department of Game and Fish has now shown the kills were actually made by wolves.

“At first, we felt very lucky because there’s a lot of wildlife out here to spare for predators,” said Coyote Springs resident Ben Lamb. “But now we’re wondering whether it’s so good for the pets.”

Flagstaff Animal Control Officer John Kachemkwik dismissed Lamb’s complaint.

“That’s what leash laws are for,” he said. “As for housecats roaming at night, they’re on their own.”

LACK OF DEEP SNOW

The dry winter has disrupted the normal hunting pattern for wolves, who take advantage of deep snow to catch deer and elk.

Instead, say biologists, they appear to be drawn to the colder climate of the North Rim, which still has a snowpack.

Thorpe warned, however, that he has heard from a friend of his neighbor’s plumber that Mexican gray wolves are especially fond of chihuahuas and likely to linger in Flagstaff.

“Mabye someone posted it on Facebook,” Thorpe said when pressed for his source.

Wolf advocates, however, said the sanctuary agreement meant the wolves had the equivalent of amnesty and could not be persecuted for their choice of prey.

“Wolves have the same rights to a varied diet as people do,” said Mandy Beach, a spokesperson for the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter. “We need to be accommodating to all of God’s creatures,”

Thorpe, however, said he will introduce a bill to require the Flagstaff Unified School District to start building cages around bus stops to protect schoolchildren, similar to what other municipalities have done in New Mexico.

“I’d require the bus driver to be armed, too, except the council has declared school buses to be gun-free zones,” Thorpe said.

Shelly Wool, a spokesperson with Arizona Game and Fish, says her agency is not pleased, either. She said game wardens are examining ways to stop the wolves before they make it into the Flagstaff sanctuary zone.

One idea being floated is a corridor in which it would be legal to hunt the lobos. Wool said the wolves would be like sitting ducks if forced into the Pumphouse Wash Natural Area near Kachina Village, where the landscape could sandwich them between the interstate and neighborhoods.

“No agency has the right or moral authority to supersede Game and Fish when it comes to animal management,” Wool explained. “Besides, the wolves are competing with hunters for elk and deer, and that is costing us a lot of money in license tags.”

Beach, however, said the Sierra Club has already established a Sanctuary City Compensation Fund, which would pay pet owners as well as Game and Fish for any loss of dogs or game species, respectively.

“We’re not sure how they’re going to get across the Grand Canyon,” Beach added. “Maybe that tramway corridor down to the Confluence will be ready — by next April 1.”

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