Feds weigh changes to Mexican wolf program

Flagstaff, AZ – Nearly a decade ago, the endangered Mexican grey wolf was reintroduced to the rugged forests of eastern Arizona and western New Mexico. For a few years it did well. But lately the number of wolves has leveled out. Now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering changes to the program to increase the population of wolves in the wild. And as Arizona Public Radio's Daniel Kraker reports, conservationists in northern Arizona hope that will open the door to returning wolves to the forests surrounding the Grand Canyon.

SFX: sneak up meeting ambi underneath track

At a recent Fish and Wildlife Service meeting in Flagstaff to gather public input on the wolf reintroduction program, Roxanne George appeared in a familiar looking red hooded cloak.

I'm little red riding hood, but I'm here to set the record straight, you know there's a reason that they call those things fairy tales, and there's no such thing as a big, bad wolf.

Instead, George calls the Mexican grey wolf an essential part of the southwest's natural heritage. And she says bringing back the region's top predator would help restore balance to the ecosystem. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's goal was to have one hundred wolves in the wild by now, including 18 breeding pairs. But at last count there were only about 60, with just seven breeding pairs. John Slown, who directs the reintroduction program, says the government has had to relocate or kill dozens of wolves for eating cattle.

if a wolf has 3 events against it in a one year period, that wolf will be removed from the wild permanently.

The reintroduction area is in the Gila and Apache-Sitgreaves National forests. It's almost entirely on federal land that's leased to ranchers, who run cattle year round, and where calving is done out in the open. So while wolves prefer wild game, Slown says it's only natural they'll also prey on livestock.

9:10 I made a joke with some friends when I got this job, I can relate to the wolves, I really prefer the taste of elk, but I find beef easier to get.

As a result ranchers have remained steadfastly opposed to the reintroduction program. So when the Fish and Wildlife Service first implemented the program ten years ago, it made several compromises, including the three strikes and the wolf-is-out policy. Wolves are also only reintroduced on the Arizona side of the recovery area, and they're not allowed to roam outside the area's boundaries. Michael Robinson, a wolf policy expert with the Center for Biological Diversity, says that's one of many rules that needs to change.

Wolves can't read signs on a map, they can't read federal register notices, and that would bring the Mexican wolf reintroduction program up to the same standards that every other endangered species recovery program has, that animals can roam widely and without bounds unless they're causing a specific tangible problem.

Several years ago a Mexican grey wolf traveled all the way to Flagstaff, where it was killed crossing highway 89. Conservationists say if they were allowed to roam, they'd establish new territory in the forested high country surrounding the Grand Canyon. Eva Sargent is with the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife.

5:40 The Grand Canyon ecoregion has been identified by scientists as one of the last best places for wolves, and the reason it's a great place is because it has a high prey density of elk, which is 75 percent of wolves' diet, it has fewer cattle, so there's fewer opportunities for conflict, and a whole lot of public land, so it's the perfect place for wolves.

A new group called the Grand Canyon wolf recovery project is pushing for wolves to either be reintroduced to the region, or be allowed to migrate there. Across the hallway from the Fish and Wildlife service's public meeting in Flagstaff, volunteers set up a giant wolf survival game, with the board laid out on the floor. Mary Soliday of Flagstaff played with her two sons.

Ok, I got 6, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, tapeworm, I lose 50 points, great, you got tapeworm, these are all the obstacles that wolves have to face.

Soliday says she's trying to educate her children about the environment they live in.

Wouldn't you love to go on a hike and hear a wolf call out? That would just be awesome, they've never heard that.

They won't be hearing any howls near the Grand Canyon any time soon. It will take at least three years for the Fish and Wildlife Service to decide what changes to make, if any, to the Mexican wolf reintroduction program.

For Arizona Public Radio, I'm Daniel Kraker in Flagstaff.

Host outro: The Fish and Wildlife service is soliciting public input on the reintroduction project through the end of the year. To comment, visit www.fws.gov/southwest.