An area set aside in southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona for the recovery of Mexican gray wolves is not big enough, according to a regional official with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“We can’t, over time, maintain genetic viability in the little area that they have,” said Southwest Regional Director Benjamin Tuggle.
The agency has proposed expanding the range of the wolves and as a result has reignited passions about whether and where humans should coexist with the predators.
Ranchers and rural families were outraged as the plan was discussed at a public meeting on Tuesday in Pinetop. A similar meeting took place last month in Albuquerque, N.M., where environmentalists spoke in favor of the proposal.
The federal agency hadn’t planned to have any meetings in Arizona but was pressured by politicians to allow Arizonans the chance to speak as well.
Under the current proposed plan, wolves would be allowed to live in forested habitat as far north as Interstate 40. The USFWS is considering removing the gray wolf from the endangered species list nationwide and designating the Mexican gray wolf as a protected subspecies. But it would likely keep its experimental population designation. That means that if wolves left their designated borders, they would be captured and removed.
However, biologists have identified the Grand Canyon region as some of the last, best territory for wolves. Although few people live in the area, the reintroduction has been blocked in part by hunters who want to protect big game on the North Kaibab.
“It’s up to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to go forward and do their jobs based on the best available science and not the politics of state and federal agencies,” said Emily Nelson of the Grand Canyon Wolf Recovery Project. “We might see the opportunity slip by us if we’re not outspoken about wanting to see wolves in the Grand Canyon.”
The State of Utah has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to a group called Big Game Forever to lobby against the lobo and its potential reintroduction to the North Rim. The group was audited at the request of Democratic state legislators after receiving payments of $300,000 the past two years for unspecified lobbying purposes, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. The lobbying group said it was fighting the Mexican gray wolf’s reintroduction, which many in southern Utah fear will quickly migrate into the remote region.
a test of time
The Mexican wolf was reintroduced in 1998. Biologists say there are at least 75 wolves in the wild in the two states. Federal officials believe it’s necessary to make more room for packs — 14 at last count — to squeeze the most from a limited gene pool.
Nelson said that whatever happens with the official reintroduction plan, she’s optimistic about the chances of wolves in northern Arizona.
“I’m always very optimistic that the wolves will come here on their own because the wolves will follow the best habitat and seek out the best places to find mates,” Nelson said. “I think the people of northern Arizona are much more supportive of wolf recovery. Every public poll in Arizona has shown the majority of people support wolf recovery in the Grand Canyon region.”
But many local elected officials from rural areas of the state spoke out against expanded wolf reintroduction at the meeting in Pinetop on Tuesday.
“The sad truth is that the wolves are already here,” Globe Mayor Terry Wheeler said during Tuesday’s meeting.
But if they’re released in Gila County as proposed, he said, wolves will soon be in Scottsdale “munching down on pink Pomeranians.”
Others in the crowd of about 300 people responded with pronouncements of hysteria or “lobophobia” after several people angrily accused the government of endangering children. Biologists said wolves are wild animals requiring caution but they have not attacked anyone since reintroduction began.
Members of the White Mountain Apache and Havasupai tribes spoke for protection. A group of Havasupai elders said they wanted to see wolves inside the Grand Canyon.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposes to more than double the area in which captive wolves could be released to 12,500 square miles. The release zone currently is restricted to the southern Apache National Forest, but it would grow north and west to the Payson area, including the full Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest and three ranger districts in the Tonto National Forest. It would also expand east in New Mexico, across Gila National Forest and into Cibola National Forest.
Eric Betz can be reached at 556-2250 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.