PHOENIX — A Northern Arizona lawmaker wants to put the state in charge of giving out federal dollars to ranchers who lose cattle to wolves.
Rep. Bob Thorpe, R-Flagstaff, contends the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service responds too slowly to requests for reimbursement — if it responds at all.
He said the only way cattle owners are going to get justice is to force the federal government to put up a $500,000 cash bond and then let the state Department of Game and Fish decide which ranchers are eligible.
Thorpe said the issue has taken on importance amid efforts to reintroduce the Mexican gray wolf to Arizona and New Mexico — and a decision to permit them to range all the way from Interstate 10 into the edges of Tucson and Phoenix, and as far north as Interstate 40, ending the practice of recapturing any wolves and returning them to the small release zone in the mountains along the Arizona-New Mexico border.
Thorpe said there was a “commitment” to the ranching community to reimburse them for animals lost to the wolves. But he said the federal government is not living up to its end of the bargain in recognizing wolf-caused depredation and reimbursing the ranchers.
But Sherry Barrett, the Mexican wolf recovery coordinator for the two-state region, said there’s no basis for what Thorpe wants. She said there already is an adequate procedure set up to review claims, including a panel that includes ranchers.
Thorpe is not alone in wanting new ways for ranchers to deal with wolves.
Sen. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford, has introduced legislation saying state Game and Fish employees are not liable for federal penalties for killing a wolf “that has been documented or caught in the act of killing livestock.”
Her measure also adds wolves to the list of animals that can be killed to protect private property, a list that now includes bears and lions, and seeks protection from federal prosecution for ranchers who exercise that authority.
Chris Tincher, spokeswoman for Fish and Wildlife, said she cannot comment on pending legislation. But Tincher said while her agency would consult with Game and Fish about any wolf kill, final decision on federal action against anyone would come through her agency and federal prosecutors.
Thorpe said his measure responds to what he said have been “quite a few complaints” from ranchers about losses in the two decades of the wolf reintroduction program.
The first-term legislator conceded he has no firsthand knowledge of unreimbursed ranchers, but is relying on what one person told him about “one of his ranching buddies’” efforts to be paid for dead cattle.
“Each time, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, they would come back with, ‘Well, you need to give us more proof,’” Thorpe said.
“So he brought them a photograph of a wolf pulling away a calf,” Thorpe said, with the calf’s head in the wolf’s mouth.
“They replied, ‘Well you need to show us more proof,’” the lawmaker said. “That got me very concerned.”
Barrett said she had never seen any such picture and is in a position to know about it.
Even if there were such a photo, she said, that is hardly the proof that’s required that the wolf killed the calf.
“It needs to be an investigation,” she said, with a forensic examination “to determine this is a valid kill,” since there are many things that kill cattle, including feral dogs, bears and mountain lions, “locoweed” and disease.
She said how fast ranchers can get paid depends on how prompt they are at providing the information. “But it’s within 30 days,” she said.There’s even a fee schedule, with a calf worth $800, $1,200 for a yearling, $1,450 for a cow and $2,500 for a bull.
Thorpe acknowledged there are issues — including legal ones — with his plan to demand money from the feds to allow it to be distributed by a state agency. “But at the same time, the system that’s in place isn’t working.’’
He said even if there are legal problems with his plan, having the Legislature approve his measure would be “a wake-up call for U.S. Fish and Wildlife’’ to be more responsive.
Beyond just changing who administers the funds, Thorpe’s plan changes the current requirement for the rancher to provide some proof, subject to verification, that a bull, a cow or a calf was lost to a wolf.
“It’s my feeling that U.S. Fish and Wildlife is going to have to prove that it wasn’t a wolf, as opposed to the opposite,” Thorpe said.