With the release of the 2018 report from the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, New Mexico cattlegrowers are concerned about the effectiveness of the Mexican gray wolf reintroduction program. The report showed that the total number of wolves that died in 2018 was 17, five in November alone. That’s the highest number of wolf fatalities in a single year since the program began in 1998.

In an Associated Press story, Bryan Bird, Southwest program director for defenders of Wildlife, said that a small of a population of Mexican gray wolves cannot sustain that level of mortality for long.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must immediately get a handle on the losses and resume releases of captive-bred wolf families,” he told the AP.

The Mexican gray wolf Interagency Field Team in light of the larger population of wolves in the wild in 2018, the percentage of mortalities this year is less than in some past years when there were fewer wolves, an indication that more of the wild population is surviving.

But it’s the number of cattle depredations that concern New Mexico and Arizona ranchers.

Since the first of 2018, there were 97 livestock kills, two-thirds of those were in Catron County.

This is can be a financial hardship problem for Socorro County rancher Randell Major and others like him whose livelihood is raising and selling cattle.

Major, who runs cattle on a ranch between Socorro and Magdalena, said he is not seeing livestock kills on his spread, at least for now.

“Of course, the Gila area has the biggest problem, but yes, we are seeing wolves down here now,” he said. “I’m seen ‘em a half mile from my house here near Strawberry Peak.”

He pointed out that an individual wolf is not normally a problem, “but once they start forming packs – which they are up there in the Gila area – then there will be lots of depredations.”

As an endangered species, it is a criminal offense to kill a Mexican gray wolf. Unless it is caught in the act of killing a cow, and then, Major said, “You have to prove it. And ranchers can’t be around 24/7 on a 30,000 acre property to be able to catch the wolf in the act of killing a cow.”

Penalties can result in a hefty fine and possible jail time.

“The wolf that I encountered was down here a half a mile off the plains area,” Major said. “I’m coming along and I immediately knew that was a wolf. He saw me and it didn’t bother him."

“After a while I hollered out and he didn’t even run,” he said. “If it was a coyote it would’ve run off, like they do when they see a human. But this one didn’t have any fear, like it didn’t know any better.”

Major is concerned about a wolf pack moving into the area

“The one wolf hasn’t been a problem yet, but in a couple more years, there could be a pack and they’re going to start killing my calves,” he said.

Major said he has nothing against the endangered species act. “We’re all for protecting wildlife, but I just think those wolves are a different story,” he said. “I think the overall wolf program is a complete failure. And it’s costing the taxpayers too much money and there’s going to be some huge problems with those wolves that are affecting the rural communities. It’s going to put a lot of ranchers out of business.”

The year-end minimum population count for 2017 was 114 wolves in the wild in Arizona and New Mexico. At the end of November, there were 80 wolves with functioning radio collars that the Interagency Field Team was actively monitoring. Not all of the wolves in the population are collared.

During the month of November, five wolves were located dead in New Mexico. All of the incidents are currently under investigation by USFWS Law Enforcement.

From January 1 to November 30, 2018 there have been a total of 17 documented wolf mortalities.

“We always see an uptick in wolf deaths during hunting season,” said Caren Cowan, Executive Director of the New Mexico Cattlegrowers Association. “Because people still do not know the difference between them and coyotes.”

“But livestock depredations continue,” she said.

During the month of November, there were six confirmed wolf depredation incidents on livestock. There were two nuisance incidents in November. From January 1 through November 30, 2018 there have been a total of 66 confirmed wolf depredation incidents in New Mexico and 31 confirmed wolf depredation incidents in Arizona.

In November alone Wildlife Services investigated:

Two dead calves in Catron County on November 14. The investigation determined one calf was a confirmed wolf kill and the other calf died of unknown causes.

A dead calf in Apache County, Arizona on Nov. 16. Confirmed wolf kill.

A dead cow in Catron County on Nov. 17. Confirmed kill by wolves.

A dead goat in Catron County on Nov. 17. Killed by a domestic dog.

A dead calf in Catron County on Nov. 17. Confirmed kill by wolves.

A dead calf in Catron County on Nov. 20. Confirmed kill by wolves.

A dead calf in Apache County, Arizona on Nov. 21. Confirmed wolf kill.

In addition, Wildlife Services hazed the Elk Horn Pack on Nov. 24-25 after locating the wolves in an open pasture in Alpine, Arizona near residences.

As for compensation to ranchers for confirmed livestock kills, there are two methods: The Agricultural Act of 2014, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Services Administration (expired on Sept. 30), and the Mexican Wolf/Livestock Council.

The Farm Bill authorized the Livestock Indemnity Program “to provide benefits to livestock producers for livestock deaths in excess of normal mortality caused by attacks from animals reintroduced into the wild by the federal government or protected by federal law, including wolves.”

The compensation is for confirmed kills only. Additionally, if an animal was pregnant at the time of death, only the pregnant animal that died is eligible for payment. The unborn animal is not considered eligible livestock. A calf must be born before or during attack to be considered eligible.

“That’s one of the frustrations,” Cowan said. “Payments that they make are based on the market value of the animal at the time it died. So, if you lose a young bull you’re losing that genetic value. So it’s not going to cost you only the cost of buying another bull – whatever the market was on the day they found it – but you’re losing all the genetic value that you originally purchased. And if you lose a young cow or heifer that’s calving, you’re losing the values of any future production for that cow. I mean you would expect that heifer or cow to give you eight to a dozen calves.”

People are losing tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of dollars cumulatively a year from these wolves and they’re getting paid back a fraction of what the actual loss was,” Cowan said. “The calf crop is down, too. I’ve had two different producers tell me that their calf crops for 2018 were only 21 percent. Your average good calf crop is from 85 to the low 90s. And the cows that are where wolves are, they may not re-breed, because they’ve been harassed or their body condition is down because wolves have been chasing them”

The Cattlegrowers Association has about 1,500 members. “We’re the voice of New Mexico ranchers,” Cowan said.

The Mexican wolf is the rarest subspecies of gray wolf in North America. Once common throughout portions of the southwestern United States, the Mexican wolf was all but eliminated from the wild by the 1970s. In 1977, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service initiated efforts to conserve the species. In 1998, Mexican wolves were released to the wild for the first time in the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area within the Mexican Wolf Experimental Population Area. In 1976, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Mexican wolf as an endangered species.

The USFWS offers a reward of up to $10,000 and the NMDGF is offering a reward of up to $1,000 for information leading to the conviction of the individual(s) responsible for the shooting deaths of Mexican wolves. A variety of non-governmental organizations and private individuals have pledged an additional $46,000 for a total reward amount of up to $58,000, depending on the information provided.