NM Game Commission ignores public

Wolf Rally June 2011

By Mary Katherine Ray, Chapter Wildlife Chair

An item on the New Mexico Game Commission’s June 9 meeting agenda said the Department of Game and Fish was seeking “guidance” on the wolf-reintroduction program.

Not knowing what form that might take, wolf supporters gathered before the Game Commission meeting, waved signs and cheered for wolves as Game Commissioners drove in. Speakers at the rally included a wolf-country campground owner and a mom who lives on the Gila Forest boundary who wants wildlife diversity including wolves in the world for her kids. A mammologist spoke about the ecological importance of wolves and even a hunter spoke about supporting wolf recovery.

When the wolf agenda item was up that afternoon, the Department presented the costs of the program since 1999. In more than 11 years, the Department of Game and Fish has spent only about a half-million dollars, and the federal government $1.4 million. The Department share amounts to $42,000 a year, a paltry sum considering its annual budget of nearly $40 million. But it was clear this was shaping up to be a question about money, or more importantly, about whether the Department should spend even a dime on any creature that can’t be shot by hunters.

During the meeting, 16 people stood up and spoke in support of wolves, citing their importance as keystone carnivores to maintain ecosystem health, their ability to keep herds healthy, the desire to be able to see and hear wolves in their native habitat, and about working to find creative solutions to conflicts with ranchers. Commissioners were reminded that a 2008 poll showed that 69 percent of voters supported wolf reintroduction.
The anti-wolf factions were represented by the usual fear-mongering: Wolves will eat or are eating all the elk, and ranchers are going out of business. (Remember, the population in the entire region hovers around 50 wolves.) Not only will wolves eat the children, the children have been traumatized by the presences of wolves. (For the record, the number of children or adults eaten by Mexican wolves in the entire known history of the species stands at zero.)

What happened next was swift but sure. Commissioner Salopek of Las Cruces made a motion to withdraw from the Mexican Wolf Reintroduction program effective June 30, 2011. It was quickly seconded by Commissioner Bidegain, the representative from Tucumcari who is also on the Board of the New Mexico Cattlegrowers Association. The Commissioners one by one then all voted to withdraw from the program.

It isn’t clear what this means for wolves. The reintroduction program is not suspended by this vote. N.M. Game and Fish simply won’t be participating in it. It won’t be helping mitigate depredations or advising and helping ranchers. It also won’t be involved in consultation about policy. The agency is required by law to continue to provide law enforcement for wolves, but it has walked away from the table where the other cooperating agencies still sit with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The other agencies still are the Arizona Department of Game and Fish, the U.S. Forest Service, USDA Wildlife Services (the predator-killing agency) and White Mountain Apache tribe.

Commissioners violated their own public-notice policy, which had been discussed that very morning and for which it was settled that 21 days was sufficient time to alert the public to proposed action. The public notice of this act was less than 60 seconds. The Commission had the appearance of wanting to avoid scrutiny and just get it done. It also had the appearance of having been decided long before the meeting opened. What was sorely lacking was consideration of the public, of the environment, conservation and wildlife protection.

Wildlife and wildfires
As I write, the Wallow fire has just burned its way across the forest of Eastern
Arizona and into the Gila of Western New Mexico. Given how big the
fire is and how much smoke is being spread all over the country, one might
expect the news for wildlife would be bleak. But according to an Arizona
Game and Fish official, wildlife know what to do in a fire, and usually larger
animals just move and birds fly away.

Small mammals can burrow underground and even just a few inches below
the surface offers sufficient safety while the fire burns across the land overhead.
While it appears as if the fire is completely catastrophic, it is actually burning in
a mosaic pattern, devastating some areas while sparing others entirely. There are
areas within the burn where wildlife can seek refuge at least for a time.

The territories of three wolf packs have been in the path of the fire, but
all the wolves are accounted for, and the dens with this year’s pups appear to
have been spared. Still, the ability of these packs to survive in the vastly altered
landscape is uncertain. An event like this fire does serve to remind us how
fragile the small wolf population is. With so few individuals, it wouldn’t take
much to devastate them. Never was it more clear that there need to be more
wolves out there so that if some are lost there is redundancy for backup.

Mary Katherine Ray