By David Bowser
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. Dr. Jim Knight, a wildlife biologist at Montana State University, is familiar with wolf reintroduction programs. He's had a close-up view of such programs in Big Sky country.
Knight recently journeyed to the Land of Enchantment to share his experiences and warnings with New Mexico cattlemen who face wolf reintroduction this spring.
Any wildlife management decision has two different parts, Knight says.
"You've got the biological factor, and you've got the social factor," he explains. "Biological factors are easy. What does that critter eat? How far does it move? What does it take to live?"
The social factors are more emotional, he admits, but "both of them are very, very important.
"It is equally important to keep them separate. When you don't, you run into problems like we did with wolf reintroduction. When you look at the disagreements, the stalemates, it's because the biological and social factors aren't separated."
Knight says there are similarities between the Montana and New Mexico wolf reintroduction programs.
"We didn't want wolves in Montana," he says. "The state game and fish department didn't want them. The governor didn't want them. The livestock industry didn't want them. I do think that all the people in New York City wanted both Montana and New Mexico to have wolves. We can't find people who are impacted who want wolves. The people who live with them don't want them."
The number one thing Montana and New Mexico have in common is that wolf reintroduction is biologically unsound, Knight says, because the wolves to be released have been selected for generations to survive in a zoo.
"What you have left to release are wolves that accept food from humans and don't bash themselves against the fences trying to get away from the sight, sound or smell of humans," Knight explains. "You've got wolves that don't kill each other trying to be competitive to get whatever food is available. You've got wolves that don't know the first thing about killing a deer, much less an elk. You have wolves that have the exact opposite characteristics of what is needed to survive in the wild."
The wolves are to be released in an area where deer numbers are declining, Knight notes.
"Wolf activists say they'll eat elk, but at the turn of the century when there were wolves in the area, they weren't eating elk then," he says. "They were eating deer. These are wolves that don't know the difference between deer and elk. They are predators, and they are opportunistic. That means that when their stomach start growling, they're going to kill something. The most likely thing they're going to kill is livestock."
New Mexico is going to be short on natural food for these wolves, he maintains. They're going to be much more likely to go after livestock.
"There are three major players involved in New Mexico surviving the wolf reintroduction," Knight says. "The first and most important one is the animal damage control person."
The APHIS animal damage control officials must be recognized experts in wolf management, wolf capture and identifying wolf kills. They can't be advocates for the livestock industry. They have to be wolf experts, Knight says.
"You need an expert with credibility," he explains.
Livestock organizations form the second group of major players.
"I don't mean organizations that just talk about what a terrible thing this is," Knight says, "but organizations that you can go to for support that can put out information on what ranchers' rights are, how to handle a situation, what kinds of things you can do and can't do, and give guidance to their membership on how the group can handle it."
Knight suggests livestock organizations publish a brochure with steps ranchers can follow, and that the Fish and Wildlife Service and animal control officials should review it.
"It should tell you what you should do, what your rights are, what your rights aren't," he says.
But the most important players are the ranchers themselves.
"They're the ones who will have to live with it and deal with it," Knight says. "If one of them does something he's not supposed to do, he will be an embarrassment to the industry; he will provide ammunition to people who talk about what rotten people ranchers are. But you do need to do the things you're allowed to do and not be pushed around."
Every rancher needs to have a plan so he'll know what to do it he finds a wolf on his property.
"You need to know what you can do if you have a kill on a public land allotment," Knight says. "It's totally different than what you can do if you have wolves on private land. If you're out there and you see a wolf with a calf by the throat, you need to know what you're going to do. If you're on public lands, you can't shoot him. You have to get a permit after you have some damage. Then you can shoot him. On private land you can shoot him. Make sure you've got some blood. Make sure you've got some torn tissue, or it's going to cost you a lot of money."
The first step, generally, is to have the livestock kill verified.
"Document everything," Knight advises. "If you see something that looks like a kill, put something over the top of it. Anchor it down so birds and scavengers don't get into it. Put a bucket over any tracks. I don't need to tell you what a wolf track looks like. It's a big old track. You aren't going to mistake it for anything else.
"Take a lot of notes and, if possible, a videotape of the kill. Call the APHIS animal control people, sheriff or the state game department."
If a wolf is killed, animal damage control officials or the Fish and Wildlife Service must be notified within 24 hours.
Regarding a preference as to which agency to notify, Knight explains pointedly that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is in the business of growing wolves.
"Their job is to defend the wolf," he warns, "not to defend the rancher or take care of his property."
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