While legislators fuel conflict over Mexican gray wolves Regular people sit down and work it out

PHOENIX — Just days before an ad hoc committee made public a plan to adequately compensate ranchers for losses from wolves, Arizona Representative Bob Thorpe, R–Flagstaff, presented a bill, March 11, to the Arizona Senate Government and Environment Committee that fans the flames of the issue.

Thorpe’s bill puts the federal government on notice that if compensation is not provided to reimburse ranchers for livestock killed by wolves the state could demand that Mexican wolves be removed from the state or be restricted to federally controlled lands and could end Arizona’s involvement in the reintroduction program.

The Senate committee voted 4-2 to recommend passage of the bill.

Keep your enemies closer

Arizona’s Game and Fish Department currently runs the Interagency Field Team, the on-the-ground managers of the Mexican Wolf Reintroduction Program.

For Arizona to stop participating in the wolf program would be a mistake, according to Arizona rancher Barbara Marks. Marks and her husband own and operate the Marks WY Ranch on the Blue River, south of Alpine. The Marks family has been ranching on the Blue since 1891.

New Mexico ceased that state’s involvement with the wolf program. Marks said she understands that legislators react out of frustration because “they don’t like what’s happening to the citizenry” but in her view their desire to protect their citizens has ended up hurting them.

“I feel sorry for the people in New Mexico,” she said. “I hope things can turn around for them. When the state decided to not be involved in the program, an awful lot of people were just left on their own.”

Marks laughed when it was suggested to her that perhaps an old saying applies: “Keep your friends close and keep your enemies closer.”

Who’s got the power?

Thorpe introduced the legislation (HB 2699) in the Arizona House in February and amended it March 10. It passed the House with 34 in favor, 24 opposed and two not voting.

The primary motive for the proposed legislation is to establish a reimbursement fund (paid for by the federal government) to compensate ranchers for losses of livestock. It also establishes state guidelines, less stringent than the federal rules, for landowners to kill wolves.

The Mexican gray wolf is protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. If a state law is in conflict with federal law, the federal law rules.

How many cows have died?

As Thorpe presented his bill to the Senate Committee, he stumbled a bit on where some of his facts came from.

“I have some data I’d like to share with you,” he said at the opening of the hearing. “It’s from Canton, Cartoon, uh, Catron County, New Mexico.

“These are wildlife investigations of attacks and injuries of all kinds,” he continued. They tracked this over a five year period – 2007 to 2012.”

According to Thorpe, in Catron County during the five-year period, there were 168 confirmed cow kills “attributable to wolf attacks” and the cost was $1,200 per cow for a total of $201,600 in damages. Thorpe said during the same period wolves killed nine horses and seven pets in Catron County and “miscellaneous sheep, elk and deer.”

“We’re talking about significant amounts of money and this is only one county in New Mexico,” he said.

Whether the Catron County numbers are accurate is open to question.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife numbers are vastly different.

Since 1998, when the first 11 Mexican gray wolves were released near Alpine Fish and Wildlife has “documented 208 livestock killed” and 36 injured in the entire two-state reintroduction area. USFWS has also determined that 26 dogs were injured and seven killed by wolves.

In other states, the estimates of the northern group of gray wolf livestock killings also vary widely.

According to the Montana Cattlemen’s Association, in 2010 ranchers in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming reported 4,437 cows killed by the “out-of-control explosion of wolf population growth” ... that “has been devastating to wildlife and livestock as hungry wolves compete for food.” The Bauer Ranch in Phillipsburg, Montana reported $88,500 in losses in three years that it attributed to wolves.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife reported 188 livestock kills in those three states in the same year.

Legislative demands

Thorpe was vague about the authorship of the bill, saying “This bill was brought to me by concerned people in the agriculture community here in Arizona,” he said.

Thorpe bases his support for the bill on the U.S. Constitution.

“Some people will try to classify this that we’re anti-wolf or trying to kill this program,” he said. “That’s not true. What we’re trying to do is  tell our ranching community that when they have substantial losses they need to be reimbursed.”

Thorpe said that if the federal government is “going to impose a program on the State of Arizona they need to include in that reimbursement for losses.”

Thorpe referenced the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, saying that in both the “importance of property” is emphasized.

“Life, liberty and property cannot be denied without due process ... and just compensation,” Thorpe said.

If Thorpe’s proposed legislation is enacted and the federal government fails to accede to its demand to fund a compensation program, to be administered by the Arizona Attorney General, Thorpe said “There’s plenty of land controlled by the federal government for these wolves to enjoy themselves,” he said.

When the public speaks does anyone listen?

When it came time for public comment, committee chair, Sen. Gail Griffin, cautioned speakers to keep their comments brief.

“This issue has been discussed and discussed so let’s hold the comments to three minutes,” she said.

Two speakers criticized the bill’s authorship.

“This was drafted in a somewhat awkward way,” said Sandy Barr with the Sierra Club. “It took me awhile to figure out what the bill was trying to do.”

Barr also said the bill contained false information. “It includes claims about wolves that are not based on facts or science,” she said.

“Basically it treats wolves as if they didn’t belong here and as we all know these are a native wildlife species.

“Wildlife is not private property. We don’t have a system like in European countries where individual wildlife belongs to people. It’s a public trust responsibility. Trying to say a wolf shouldn’t wander over a piece of private property is inappropriate and contrary to law.

“We don’t get compensated when eagles or owls or other raptors  grab small animals,” she continued. “We don’t get to exclude these animals from our private property.”

Barr said the proposed bill “along with other bills we’ve seen this session ... do make the case why we need a strong Endangered Species Act and why we need it enforced ... why we need more, not less, federal engagement to recover these endangered animals.”

Stephanie Nichols, an animal rights attorney, who represented the Arizona Animal Defense League, was appalled at the bill’s authorship.

“I find it quite stunning that the legislature would think this is good legislative drafting, or that this is something that is lawful,” she said. “We do live in a federal system and whether you like it or not the federal government has certain obligations and duties and does have supremacy in some cases over states.” That supremacy, Nichols said, “Sometimes protects the interests of citizens, in this case the 77 percent of Arizonans who support Mexican wolf recovery in our state.”

Livestock pollutes?

The Senate committee heard the strongest condemnation of the bill from Barbara Joy.

Joy initially launched an attack on livestock grazing.

“Grazing is a serious threat to wildlife ...” she said. “The ecological cost of livestock grazing exceeds any other Western land use. Grazing destroys native vegetation, damages soil.”

Sen. Griffin determined that Joy’s diatribe was off-subject and she tersely interrupted. “Would you address the bill,” she said.

Joy did make a minor tack change but she continued an assault on the motives behind the bill.

“The hatred and misinformation that comes out of the mouths of those responsible for these bills ... is based on lies.”

The bills are “written by special interests and introduced by those who are funded by them,” Joy said. “They are a bunch of nonsense. It sounds like it’s been written by someone who belongs to some anti-government group who has no clue about the critical importance of Mexican gray wolves.

“Politicians should be embarrassed and ashamed that this inflammatory garbage was written and is seriously being considered for passage.”

Call for cooperation rejected

The only speaker who made an attempt to build a bridge across the vast arroyo separating the pro-wolf and pro-livestock camps was a veterinarian from Rio Verde, Mike Sorum.

Sorum’s first sentence, however, was disputed by committee chair Sen. Griffin.

“I think we need ranchers involved in conservation,” Sorum said.

“Ranchers are involved in conservation,” Griffin shot back.

“This bill has many false statements,” Sorum continued, “that polarizes an already very sensitive issue. I think what we need to do is bring people together not polarize them even more.”

As Sorum concluded his call for cooperation rather than confrontation, Sen. Griffin took a shot at the pro-wolf side.

“If these wildlife groups would stop suing, we could work together,” she said.

Wolves are a plague?

Patrick Bray with the Arizona Cattle Growers’ Association, began his comments on a note of what sounded like cooperation, saying the proposed legislation is “not anti wolf,” but he ended up describing livestock producers’ plight as “plagued by wolves.”

The Cattle Growers’ Association has “been committed to working with the program,” he said, but “it’s been really tough to sit at the table and look across at people who are constantly suing over the issue...”

Governments fight, citizens cooperate

As the opposing forces wrangled in the political arena at the Arizona legislature over a proposed law that will likely be meaningless – except perhaps as a symbolic gesture – ranchers and wildlife groups and other “stakeholders,” after sitting together for two years of discussions as the Mexican Wolf/Livestock Coexistence Council,  shook hands and initiated a program that seems to please both sides.

Unlike the legislative approach, the coexistence council “was able to find common ground” (not a battlefield) bounded by their overlapping interests. They describe their “long term vision” as a three legged stool. The legs that support this stool are “viable ranching, self sustaining wolf populations and healthy western landscapes.”

“It’s a good start,” said rancher Barbara Marks, who is a member of the council.

“We finally got some recognition that we (ranchers) do bear the brunt of this,” she said.  

The Mexican Wolf/Livestock Coexistence Council 2014 Strategic Plan includes reimbursement to ranchers beyond that previously provided which was only for “confirmed” wolf kills.

Livestock producers have complained for a long time that the their income has been reduced because wolf kills are under-counted (many carcasses are never found) and livestock behavior changes when predators are around which can result in reductions in weight gain and reduced reproductive rates. Livestock producers say stress on livestock from wolves results in lower meat quality and also forces ranchers to adopt more expensive management techniques.

To avoid cattle/wolf conflicts, ranchers are forced to pay more, Marks said.

“We can bring the cows in closer but then we have to feed them expensive hay,” she said.

Last year, Marks said, they weighed their options: feed the cows hay or move them away from wolves to an available ranch and pay the lease.

“We put pen to paper,” she said. “It was cheaper to haul them (to New Mexico) and check on them regularly than to purchase hay and feed them here.”

The stress from wolves affects not only the cattle but also the ranchers.

“It’s a huge amount of stress and added labor,” she said, “especially when the wolves are close by.”

Coexistence takes cooperation and dollars

The Coexistence Council developed a formula aimed at determining how to fairly compensate affected livestock producers.

The equation takes into account more factors than just confirmed kills.

Factors considered will include if wolves are near a livestock operation, if the area has wolves with pups, how many livestock are in the area and if the producers are taking actions to mitigate their damages by implementing “conflict avoidance techniques.” Each of the factors is weighted with a point system and the formula yields a score that determines how much compensation a livestock producer will be eligible for.

The plan also calls for substantial funding to help ranchers with “conflict avoidance” techniques. These techniques include use of range riders, to keep a constant eye on cows, and moving livestock to pastures away from wolves.

The Coexistence Council plans to hire a program coordinator whose job will be to raise program funds, conduct community outreach and keep the council’s work on track.

The council’s first year budget is expected to include $634,000 in spending. Major line items are $250,000 in “Payments for Wolf Presence,” and $250,000 for “Conflict Avoidance Measures.” The program coordinator’s salary is planned to be $50,000.

Until September of 2010, Defenders of Wildlife funded compensation for livestock operators’ losses. Examples of the Defenders’ program are $37,825 in compensation in 2006 for 28 wolf-killed livestock, four livestock injuries, four dogs injured and two killed; $ 31,117 in 2007 for 36 livestock fatalities, four injured, three dogs injured and one killed.

In April 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service created the Coexistence Council to direct the compensation payments from the Mexican Wolf/Livestock Interdiction Trust Fund. The Trust Fund is administered by the nonprofit National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. From September 2010 through 2012 the council paid out $32,481 to livestock producers and pet owners for Mexican wolf depredations. New Mexico Game and Fish chipped in just under $ 2,700.

Consistency is key

Dollars help to ease the conflict between ranchers and wolves, but common sense and consistency are the keys to long term success for both sides, according to Marks.

“We can see there has been better understanding when there has not been a big turnover in personnel,” she said. When Chris Bagnoli was here heading it (the Interagency Field Team) it was beneficial. We’d known Chris a long time before when he was wildlife manager for Region 1. We didn’t have to go through the whole process of letting him know we really are pretty good people We are law abiding citizens. He already knew that. We talk to him and he talks to us.”

Marks is also pleased with the Bagnoli’s replacement, Jeff Dolphin, who has been with the team for several years. “When Jeff got the job he was already familiar with it ... he already had the local expertise,” Marks said.

Marks finds some humor in dealing with wolf program volunteers. “You can hear them on the other end of the phone, ‘Oh, I’m talking to a rancher. Oh my goodness. I have to be really careful giving them information.’

“But that’s fine; we go through the whole process. We treat them the way we like to be treated. We try to follow the Golden Rule.”

More ranchers choose cooperation over conflict

The Marks and a few other ranchers got involved in the tedious process of cooperation early on. They decided “let’s not jump into things. Let’s try to think through this process.”

At first, she said, “we could not get people involved. Now they’re saying to us ‘we’re so sorry we didn’t pay attention to you folks.’”

Now ranching folks and others are meeting together.

“The relationships have been really nice,” Marks said. “It’s not just ranchers. It’s been sportsmen’s groups and some of the wildlife groups. Arizona Game and Fish is involved.

“Let’s try to work this through,” she said.   

Reach the writer at outdoors@wmicentral.com

(2) comments


Well, it's clear that Representative Thorpe has no understanding whatsoever of the dynamics of the wolf / cattle situation, nor has he apparently bothered to read the Council's 2014 Strategic Plan. How such legislation can be conceived and introduced -- much less passed -- in such a vacuum is amazing and dismaying.

Here;'s the Council's plan in its entirety:


Do wolves depredate on livestock? Clearly, yes. Are the losses as high as claimed by those opposing the whole idea of RE-introduction of wolves to their formerly natural habitats? Clearly: NO. Certainly not considering that really SMALL number of wolves that there are! Come on, Arizona is not really overrun by thousands of bloodthirsty, hungry wolves attacking everything moving... or kidnapping children from bus stops.
There's an awful lot of exaggerations, old (and untrue...) myths and panic mongering Realistically, feral dogs, coyotes and killer bees probably do more damage EACH than the whole wolf population of Arizona. All the FIFTY of them...

Should ranchers be reimbursed for their losses? I would say, that DEPENDS. If we are talking about ranchers practicing good husbandry, caring for their livestock, moreover even grazing on their OWN land, then by all means, yes. If, on the other hand, we are talking about livestock herded out onto some public wilderness area and left alone there for months, predation is simply among the RISKS of this cheap grazing opportunity. Even out there it would be POSSIBLE to protect livestock NON-lethally - if ranchers really CARE for their four-legged investment, as a lot of ranchers certainly do. Not all of them, though - and I more and more get the impression THOSE are the ones constantly crying "WOLF!" and wanting to shoot something. I mean the people accepting losses through birthing problems, diseases, insects, accidents and in the course of round-up and transportation to the slaughterhouse on overcrowded trucks as "natural", as it would be too expensive to prevent any of that, but having FITS if some wild animal dares to kill even ONE cow or sheep and calling for removal of this threat to their livelihood...

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