Carnivore Restoration News :: Sinapu

Monday, December 13, 2004

Gray wolves lope toward Colo. release

The Denver Post

By Electa Draper
Denver Post Staff Writer

Durango - In three to five years, wolves could hit the ground running in southwestern Colorado and northern New Mexico, according to several members of the federal recovery team.

And the wolf that appears headed for reintroduction in the Four Corners region, including perhaps the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, is the imperiled Mexican gray.


Although nothing has been finalized, scientists on the team are leaning toward release of the smaller and greatly endangered Mexican gray wolf rather than the northern grays released in Yellowstone National Park.


"I suspect the recovery team will consider which subspecies of wolf needs our help the most," said Michael Phillips, recovery team member and executive director of the Montana-based Turner Endangered Species Fund.


There is some dissent, however, because the Mexican gray's historic range extended only as far north as the desert climes of southern New Mexico and southern Arizona, said Michael Robinson, recovery team member and carnivore coordinator for the New Mexico-based Center for Biological Diversity. However, he said, his view that the Mexican gray might not be the most suitable for Colorado appears to be in the minority.


Several team members estimated that a draft recovery plan for public review could be three to nine months away. While an exact timeline is undetermined, they said reintroduction is likely before the end of the decade.


Colorado Division of Wildlife biologist Gary Skiba said scientists are also looking at west- central Colorado in the wilds near Aspen as a potential site to re-establish one subspecies or another. He emphasized that the deliberations of the federal recovery team, about two dozen experts or stakeholders, must be largely confidential until the draft plan is ready.


The region where Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado meet historically was a mingling place for northern and southern wolf populations before their extermination in Colorado and much of the West by the 1930s.


"It is quite clear there is still room in southern Colorado for wolves. There is a huge number of elk," Robinson said.


A team member representing livestock interests, Tom Compton of Hesperus, said ranchers oppose reintroduction in the Four Corners but must accept that wolves are likely coming. Recovery of the species is the law. And the Endangered Species Act has more teeth than a pack of wolves.


"If we had our druthers we'd rather not have this experience," Compton said. "But it's inevitable, so we're looking for some major concessions in compensation and livestock protection. On a scale of 'angry' from 1 to 10, I'd say Colorado ranchers are at 8 or 9. In New Mexico, they're at 11."


The Yellowstone reintroduction has been hailed as a success. The release of 66 wolves a decade ago helped yield a wild population estimated at more than 700 in three states: Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. The wolf there is now designated as threatened rather than endangered. And colonization of northern Colorado and Utah by these northern gray wolves is widely expected.


But the Mexican gray's recovery in Arizona and New Mexico has been undermined by a complicated management scheme Robinson said.


The Mexican gray wolf is the only endangered species in the country that the Fish and Wildlife Service is required to kill or remove if pack members stray outside arbitrarily defined boundaries. That has been more damaging, Robinson said, than illegal shootings of the wolves, which have occurred in other recovery regions.


Last Monday the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a five-year review of Mexican gray wolf releases. An early environmental impact statement had projected 12 breeding pairs by this December, but scientists know of only five pairs.


The Mexican gray wolf is the smallest American wolf. Females typically weigh 50-65 pounds. Males generally weigh in at 70-75 pounds.


In the desert southwest, Mexican gray wolves prey on antelope, deer, javelina and peccary, but they'll take elk when they can get it, Phillips said.


At this time in Colorado, any wolves south of an arbitrary federal boundary, Interstate 70, are part of the Southwest wolf recovery program and are fully protected as an endangered species. Wolves north of I-70 are considered merely threatened.


The Endangered Species Act requires that the federal government recover wolves in the Southwestern "distinct population segment."


If recovery team members, as now expected, deem it necessary to reintroduce wolves directly into southern Colorado and northern New Mexico, one site could be media tycoon Ted Turner's Vermejo Ranch near the state line.


"It's crazy," said Ignacio-area sheep rancher J. Paul Brown, who has federal grazing permits in both states. "It's not right for the wolves. There's too many people here."


But Phillips said there is room for perhaps 1,000 wolves in the San Juan Mountains and other ranges of the Southern Rockies for many decades. He cites computer modeling of wolf and human populations concluded last year by the Klamath Center for Conservation Research, the Turner Endangered Species Fund and others.


There are legal and moral imperatives to recover wolves, Phillips said. "We as a people, as a country, have decided to share our lands with wildlife. The biggest determinant of the wolf's fate will be human tolerance."


Staff writer Electa Draper can be reached at 970-385-0917 or edraper@denverpost.com