Recent decisions by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to expand the number of Mexican wolves and the area the wolves are allowed to roam, has Greenlee County ranchers extremely worried. Wolves will now be allowed to roam freely across all of Greenlee County and about two-thirds of both Arizona and New Mexico.
The Fish & Wildlife’s Final Rule 10(j), for the so-called “Experimental Non-Essential” population of the Mexican wolf, was published Feb. 17 of this year. The rule allows for the current population of wolves to increase from about 100 to 325 and increases by 10 times the zone where wolves are allowed to roam.
Ranchers feel that this federal action will create severe hardship for them for a number of reasons:
First, the existing population of wolves has already put some ranchers in our county out of business. Chase Caldwell, who has a ranch on Blue River, testified to the Greenlee County Board of Supervisors last year that he had to sell all of his cattle because the wolves were killing nearly all of their calves as well as some of his grown cattle. Mr. Caldwell also testified that he has been unable to sell (or get a bid on) his ranch. He said that as soon as prospective buyers find out the wolves are on the ranch, they lose interest.
There has never been an adequate compensation program for wolf depredation, and no such program is in the Final Rule. It seems logical that if the federal government wants wolves to roam in our county, it should foot the bill for the costs of having them. Those costs for ranchers include not only their loss of income from their livestock, but also loss of ranch value.
Most ranchers have made a significant investment in their ranches, and many expect to sell their ranches for retirement income. Many of us hope to pass our ranches on to our children, as indicated by several fourth- and fifth- generation ranching families in Greenlee County. Those opportunities will not be available if wolves affect the operation of their ranches.
Imagine investing your life savings into any business and then having the government pass new regulations that destroy your ability to be successful. There are thousands of examples of such over-regulation, and now that issue is wolf expansion for the ranchers in Greenlee County.
Second, it is difficult to imagine the population cap of 325 wolves will be effective. The cap was immediately challenged in court by environmental groups as being adverse to the purpose of the Endangered Species Act. They have what appears to be a valid point. However, in the event the cap withstands the court challenge, it is unlikely it will be enforced.
Ranchers are not strangers to false promises from government agencies, and this cap on wolf numbers seems skeptical at best. A safe bet would be that environmental groups will file lawsuits to stop any action that calls for wolf removals of any type.
In the northern states, when wolf numbers reached 100, the population exploded. With that in mind, the logical conclusion is that we will soon see a dramatic increase in wolf numbers; the 325 wolf cap will be meaningless, the areas that have wolves now will have many more wolves, and wolves will spread to the other areas where they could not roam before the new rule.
Ranchers will continue to use every avenue available to stop expansion of the “experimental” wolf population. Several lawsuits have already been filed, and, undoubtedly, more will be filed soon. In addition to legal action, we also need congressional relief in the form of a well-funded compensation program. If Congress is not willing to provide adequate reimbursement for losses, the program should be terminated.
This is a tough issue, and the battle is just beginning. Every citizen has the right to have his or her voice heard. Don’t hesitate to exercise that right.
Jeff Menges is a longtime Greenlee County rancher, member of the Arizona Cattle Growers Association and past president of the Greenlee County Cattle Growers Association.