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Fish and Wildlife Service proposing changes to wolf program

Albuquerque, New Mexico (AP) 12-07

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to change some of the rules for a program that began putting Mexican gray wolves back into the wild in southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona nearly 10 years ago.

Federal biologists began releasing wolves in 1998 to re-establish the species in part of its historic range after it had been hunted to the brink of extinction in the early 1900s.

Ranchers have consistently complained about wolves killing their livestock, while conservationists have criticized the program’s management – specifically a policy that requires wolves to be removed if they’re linked to three livestock killings.

The federal agency has begun taking comments in a series of public meetings in New Mexico and Arizona about potential changes to the program.

The wolf reintroduction program originally predicted that by now, there would be a viable, self-sustaining population of 100 wolves and 18 breeding pairs in the wild. Instead, the service counted 59 wolves and six breeding pairs last winter during its official, once-a-year count.

Since the first releases, the agency has removed 65 wolves permanently – either by capturing them for permanent captivity or by killing them, said Dave Parsons, who oversaw the wolf recovery program from 1990 to 1999. He is now is carnivore conservation biologist for The Rewinding Institute.

The wild population has been “propped up by continued releases far beyond what we thought would be necessary,” he said Wednesday.

Proposed rule changes published in the Federal Register include:

–Allowing wolves to roam outside the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area. Currently, wolves that leave the boundaries are caught and released again in the area or are taken into captivity. The agency said that’s not conducive to the goal of at least 100 wolves.

–Releasing captive wolves anywhere in the recovery area. Right now, they’re released only in a primary zone in Arizona. The agency said that sets impractical limits on release sites, limits the program’s ability to address genetic issues and leaves a misperception that wolves in the secondary zone are problem animals that have been moved.

–Including White Sands Missile Range as a wolf recovery area.

–Allowing more ways to harass nuisance wolves or those that attack livestock or pets on private, public or tribal lands. The agency said giving people more leeway to try to chase off wolves could deter problem wolf behavior and increase public acceptance of the program.

–Changing rules that don’t allow people to kill wolves that attack dogs on private or tribal land. Wolves have killed dogs near people’s homes, and “that’s a complaint that we’ve heard quite a bit,” said Elizabeth Slown, an agency spokeswoman.

–Clarifying definitions of such terms as breeding pair or depredation incident and identifying impediments to re-establishing wolves. For example, a 2001 review of the program recommended requiring ranchers on public grazing land to remove carcasses of livestock that die for whatever reason so wolves don’t feed on them. If the final rule incorporates that recommendation, it could mean wolves that scavenge on carcasses would not be defined as nuisance or problem wolves.

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