Tim Steller: Game and Fish can't be trusted with wolf program

2014-04-30T00:00:00Z 2014-04-30T12:43:32Z Tim Steller: Game and Fish can't be trusted with wolf programTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Arizona’s Game and Fish commissioners want you to trust them with the Mexican gray wolf recovery program. Again.

From 2003 through 2009, Arizona Game and Fish led the program through a broader group called the Adaptive Management Oversight Committee. During those years, the known wolf population in eastern Arizona and western New Mexico went from 55 to 42.

Then, in 2009, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was forced, through a lawsuit settlement, to take greater control of the program. The settlement also voided a rule that mandated killing wolves that preyed on livestock three times within any 365-day period.

From 2010 to 2013, the wolf population in the area rose from 50 to 83.

Now the Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing a revised “rule” for managing the wolf population, reintroduced to much fanfare in eastern Arizona 1998.

The commission, the chair of which is Sahuarita Police Chief John Harris, decided in a special meeting April 22 to propose that Game and Fish assume control of the wolf recovery program. In a document labeled a “cooperating agencies alternative” submitted to the Fish and Wildlife Service, the commission said:

“State and Tribal wildlife agencies and U.S.D.A.-APHIS Wildlife Services are best suited to operational wolf management and should be recognized and empowered by USFWS to collaboratively exercise their wildlife management authorities for Mexican wolves. They are uniquely positioned to form partnerships with local communities, stakeholders and businesses that might be positively or negatively affected by Mexican wolves.”

It may well be that state and tribal agencies have better relations with the rural residents than the feds, and that is a relevant factor in a locally controversial program like this. But the proposal’s details belie the idea that Game and Fish would help the wolf population grow.

It establishes a maximum population of 150 wolves in either state, beyond which the wolves would be removed.

It sets a maximum proportion, 15 percent, of the deer and elk population that wolves may consume, beyond which they’re removed or killed.

It re-establishes the rule condemning any wolf that attacks livestock three times within a 12-month period.

It establishes new criteria for killing bothersome wolves. For example, if it can be confirmed that a wolf “harassed” a domestic animal, it can be killed within 48 hours.

It even approves killing “to prevent wolves or wolf-like canids from passing on abnormal physical, genetic or behavioral characteristics to other wolves, or from teaching other wolves abnormal behaviors.”

The Game and Fish response to “anything is pretty much pick up a rifle and kill a wolf,” said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity, a chief antagonist in the wolf controversy on behalf of environmental groups. “That’s why the numbers go down when Game and Fish manages them.”

Naturally, Mike Rabe disagrees thoroughly with this line of thinking. He’s the non-game endangered- wildlife program chief for Arizona Game and Fish.

The blame for the stagnant population in the decade ending 2010 lies with illegal killing of wolves and the fact that they were largely an introduced population, not wild-born, he said.

“Most of the problem wolves have been captive-bred wolves who have been put out and caused problems soon afterwards,” he said.

“There’s a misunderstanding that Arizona Game and Fish wants to kill all the wolves. But we want to make sure the wolf program works for the people where the wolves are in Arizona, too, not just the people in San Francisco and Denver,” he said.

This is the same argument made in the commission proposal — not surprisingly, because it was authored by the man who once was the Game and Fish point man on the wolf program, Terry Johnson. By the time he retired from Game and Fish, Johnson was being criticized by environmentalists for siding too much with cattle and hunting interests. Now he’s working directly for them. (An email from Johnson is attached.)

The proposal passed by the Game and Fish Commission was created by a closed group of “cooperating agencies and “stakeholders.”

The agencies include the eastern Arizona counties where the wolves roam, and the stakeholders are a who’s who of hunting and cattle groups.

The Arizona Cattle Growers’ Association, the Arizona Elk Society, the Arizona Trappers Association, and even Phoenix Varmint Callers Inc. were involved in the creation of the proposal. None of the environmental groups that have worked on the wolf program knew of it until a few days before the special commission meeting.

“If this was really a document for wolf recovery, they would have done it at a regular meeting, not in the dark of night without any opportunity for public input and with no involvement of those who support wolf recovery,” said Sandy Bahr of the Sierra Club.

But it’s not a wolf-recovery document so much as a statement of where the current Game and Fish Commission stands. The two real-life biologists who were on the commission, Tucsonan Bob Hernbrode and Jennifer Martin of Phoenix, served their terms and were not invited back by the new commission that has vetted appointees since 2010.

In their absence, cattle and hunting interests have consolidated their grip on the commission. That’s who’s driving this new proposal, and why it should be dismissed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and others who want the wolf population to thrive.

Their interests should be considered but should not decide the future of the wolf program.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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