"Cost Sharing For Wolves"

Cost-Sharing for Wolves

A new program in the Southwest pays ranchers for the presence of wolves, but not everyone is convinced it will work.

Environmental changes send shockwaves through ranching operations. The changes aren’t always bad—a small wildfire can clean a hillside of pine trees for grass to fill in. But in the case of an “apex predator” like a reintroduced wolf, which has no natural predators itself, the environmental changes usually mean dead or stressed cattle, open cows, dry cows and uneven grazing patterns. The result is more work and less income for ranchers.

As of February 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service counted a minimum of 109 Mexican wolves in its Southwest Region, which includes Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. That is a roughly 30 percent increase from the 83 wolves counted in 2014. In 2013, the agency investigated 61 incidents where wolves were suspected of killing or injuring livestock. The agency confirmed about half of the deaths—28—were due to wolves. Based on its 2013 data—the latest available—FWS estimates that for every 100 wolves in the wild, there will be 34 livestock depredations per year, an increase from 2012.Carey Dobson doesn’t like the trend. He grazes 1,100 cow-calf pairs on the north slopes of the White Mountains in eastern Arizona, and it’s all wolf country. In 2001 a wolf came into Dobson’s barn at the ranch headquarters and maimed a colt, which later had to be euthanized. Last year a wolf killed and ate a calf at the end of Dobson’s driveway. In 2013 he had 12 confirmed depredations.

But the cost of ranching with wolves trickles down from the depredations in countless ways unique to each operation. When Dobson has to prematurely rotate 700 mother cows and calves out of a pasture newly occupied by wolves, the unforeseen operational change incurred unforeseen expenses.

Federal wolf biologists rarely have a working knowledge of ranching, but they can see enough to recognize the adverse presence of wolves beyond the depredations. Similar scenarios have confronted the agency in the Great Lakes Region of the Midwest and the Northern Rockies, where seasonal pasture rotation occurs much like it does in the Southwest. European livestock producers face similar situations with wolves.

But as of last year, only two programs in the world, one in Sweden and one in the Southwest United States, compensated livestock producers for the presence of wolves, meaning that the payments are in addition to preventative compensation and depredation compensation.

In the Southwest, the organization responsible for allocating the money is an 11-member affiliate called the Mexican Wolf/Livestock Coexistence Council. It includes federal, state and tribal personnel, members of wildlife advocacy groups, and ranchers from Arizona and New Mexico. Formed in March 2014, the Council’s Payments for Wolf Presence program issued its first payments in November, totaling $85,500, to 26 Arizona and New Mexico ranchers. The program’s formula correlates data—number of cattle exposed to wolves, overlap of cattle with wolf territory and number of wolf pups that survive through the end of the year, among other criteria—into a point system that attempts to compensate ranchers for wolves.

“It’s a start,” says Dobson, a member of the Council. He’s the fourth generation of his family to ranch in the White Mountains, and he hopes the sixth generation of Dobsons will maintain the traditions. “I want to see this work, but it’s just a drop in the bucket,” he says. “My question to [the feds] would be, where’s the money going to come from to make this work?”

Read more in the June 2015 issue of Western Horseman.

Credit: Will Grant

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