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Putting wolves on North Kaibab now might work better

Putting wolves on North Kaibab now might work better

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When it comes to endangered Mexican gray wolves and restoring them to their historical range, be careful what you wish for.

On the one hand, Arizona Game and Fish and a coalition of ranching and sport-hunting groups wanted to expand the current recovery zone in the White Mountains not to the west or north but south to the Mexican border, where the subspecies originated and presumably would disperse.

On the other, several conservation groups urged federal wildlife managers to allow the wolves to roam as far north as the Grand Canyon and beyond, a range that once supported wolves.

So the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service split the difference in a way that makes neither group happy. Under the final plan released late last month, the wolves will get a dramatically expanded recovery range from I-40 south to the Mexican border across most of Arizona and New Mexico.

For the Game and Fish coalition, that is much too large a territory. Wolves, they say, don’t mix with cows and suburbs, and sportsmen aren’t too fond of competing with them for elk and deer trophies, either.

For the wolf advocates, it is far too little. The packs need much bigger tracts of true wilderness, and the North Rim is about as close to that as it gets in Arizona.

From the standpoint of an observer in Flagstaff, the plan is an obvious compromise and thus bound to draw complaints from both sides. It may be a interim range that will be expanded as the packs grow. Or it may be a pilot range that will be pulled back to the White Mountains if too many conflicts between wolves and people arise.

The expansion of a range for a predator that is at or near the top of the food chain does raise some questions that we don’t think Fish and Wildlife has answered yet.

The first is how will wildlife managers handle wolfpacks that take up residence much closer to settled communities than they are now on remote, federal forest lands?

Right now, bears that become acclimated to humans by feeding on garbage are sometimes put down by Game and Fish rather than relocated. Will that be the treatment for wolves found roaming in neighborhoods, and does this expansion actually put them more in harm’s way than they are now?

Also, the new plan would allow a rancher to kill wolves attacking his livestock. Ranchers are currently compensated for lost livestock at a rate of 100 percent for a confirmed kill and 50 percent for a suspected kill. Is the new plan setting up the wolves for a “shoot first, ask questions later” approach that won’t allow enough time for them to learn to steer well clear of livestock?

Another concern is what will happen when the wolves inevitably cross I-40, as several have already done in the past decade — one got as far north as Doney Park before being struck and killed on North Highway 89. Will they be relocated to the Mexican border or simply shuttled back to a spot in the center of the zone and allowed to follow their old path north again?

The habitat above the rim in Coconino County is just as attractive north of the interstate as south, and forcing the wolves to bunch up around Munds Park, Kachina Village or the cattle ranches atop Anderson Mesa seems like an invitation to confrontation.

Even Fish and Wildlife concedes that there isn’t enough suitable range south of I-40 to support the number of wolves — one estimate is close to 1,000 — needed to make it on their own. This is an interim plan, say federal biologists, but without a clear set of benchmarks or firm dates for expansion north.

We’re no experts, but if those who are say the North Kaibab ultimately is the best habitat in the state for a self-sustaining wolf population, why not introduce them there now? Expanding the current range to the west and east might ultimately work for the wolves, but if north of the Grand Canyon is where they belong in today’s Arizona, we say why not give it a try right now?

Our View: The interim plan to expand the packs first into Maricopa, Yavapai and Coconino counties is an invitation to needless confrontation with humans and vehicles.

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