To Recover Endangered Wolves, We Must Address the Impact on Communities and Landowners

Mexican Wolf. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In 1976, the last wild Mexican wolves were captured and put into a captive breeding program. Over the last half-century, their offspring have been reintroduced into the wolf’s former territory, with approximately 160 wolves living wild in Arizona and New Mexico today. The return of wild wolves has been slow and frequently contentious, as wolves impose costs on communities and landowners. But recent progress suggests that cooperation is likely to win out over conflict, to the long term benefit of both people and wolves.

As with many predator reintroduction efforts, the return of Mexican wolves has deepened divisions between ranchers and other landowners on one side and conservationists on the other. The Mexican Wolf/Livestock Coexistence Council, a working group established by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to bring representatives of these conflicting groups together, has described well their different perspectives.

Today, a growing wolf population concerns ranchers that a few losses might turn into many, that government sponsored reintroduction will inject additional interference into their businesses, that they may lose their ranches, that wolves may negatively impact wild game or introduce disease, and that the reintroduction program is just another way for special interest groups to run them off the land. Most of all, ranchers worry that their heritage, lifestyle, and family businesses, based on ranching and outfitting, might slowly disappear, resulting in further fragmented and diminished Western landscapes. . . To [wolf advocates, however], wolf recovery is an opportunity to right a wrong of the past, and any hardship to ranchers and landowners is a small price to pay and easy to address.

The major question for federal policymakers and stakeholders is whether to deepen this conflict, by encouraging a politicized winner-take-all approach, or resolve it through mutually beneficial compromise. The former encourages each side to vilify the other and results in inconsistent policy as political winds change. The latter encourages cooperation and promotes long-term solutions.

Unfortunately, the former, combative approach has often been chosen, with predictable results. A lack of cooperation led federal and state relations to sour, to the point that the New Mexico Department of Fish and Game sued the federal government in 2015 to block further releases without the state’s consent. Lawsuits have also been filed challenging federal accommodations for ranchers and other landowners and demanding, among other things, increased criminal enforcement against people who inadvertently harm or disturb wolves.

While there have been several high-profile missteps–and will doubtlessly be more in the future–the Mexican wolf program has, overall, tended toward collaboration. In 2018, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, and Arizona Department of Fish and Game signed a cooperation agreement giving each a say in how the program is implemented going forward and a stake in the species’ eventual recovery and delisting.

Likewise, federal and state governments, conservationists, and others have sought to address the impacts to ranchers and other landowners through flexible compensation programs. Although ranchers can be paid for wolf-related losses, the Wolf/Livestock Coexistence Council also compensates for the adoption of conflict avoidance strategies and the mere presence of wolves. Last week, Arizona amended its compensation program to provide more money for conflict avoidance strategies, to minimize the use of lethal means.

If priced correctly (never a certainty when depending on limited government funds), these approaches could make wolves’ presence an asset to landowners, rather than a liability. Only compensating losses leaves ranchers, at best, no worse off due to wolves’ presence and, more likely, slightly worse off due to the time and other costs required to obtain compensation. But paying landowners for wolves’ presence creates a profit opportunity. If they can develop effective conflict avoidance strategies, ranchers and landowners may have a financial incentive to accommodate more wolves nearby.

Ironically, this collaboration might have been impossible if the species had not been extirpated in the 1970s. Generally, the Endangered Species Act imposes a strict prohibition on activities that affect endangered species, including common land use activities. This can impose significant burdens on landowners who accommodate rare species and, perversely, encourage preemptive habitat destruction. For endangered species, like the Mexican wolf, the Fish and Wildlife Service has limited flexibility to modify these restrictions.

However, Section 10(j) of the Endangered Species Act authorizes the Fish and Wildlife Service to introduce “experimental populations” without the regulatory baggage that otherwise accompanies endangered species. So long as the reintroduction effort has an overall conservation benefit, the Service has the same regulatory flexibility as for threatened species. That flexibility, when used wisely, is an important tool for resolving conflicts and encouraging proactive recovery efforts.

This month, the Fish and Wildlife Service is taking comments on a supplemental environmental review for its 10(j) rule for Mexican wolves. Although the outcome of that process is uncertain, recent developments provide reason for measured optimism. In addition to signs of increased cooperation, the last two years have seen significant increases in the Mexican wolf population. The population is only at half of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s target and has a long way to go, but the Mexican wolf appears to be on the road to recovery.

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