What ‘coexisting’ with wolves means from a rancher’s perspective

By Theodora Dowling
Special to Western Livestock Journal, December 8, 2014

If a rancher receives cash payments in exchange for feeding his cattle or sheep to wolves, is he still a rancher? And what is a cow or a sheep truly worth? Ranchers in Arizona and New Mexico are being asked to support wolf populations on their ranches in exchange for payments from the “Mexican Wolf/Livestock Coexistence Council.” But, according to affected producers, the funds from the “Coexistence Plan” don’t come close to covering the actual costs—which range from livestock depredation, weight loss, infertility and abortion to finding new pasture to dealing with and replacing dead and injured livestock to hiring around-the-clock riders to watch over livestock.

The “Coexistence Council” is mostly federally funded. It was conceived by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a way to reduce conflicts between livestock producers and Mexican wolves. The agency started introducing the wolves (listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act) in southern Arizona and New Mexico in 1998. Since then, the program has struggled.

“There’s just not enough prey to sustain wolves down here,” said Arizona Cattle Growers’ Association (ACGA) Executive Patrick Bray. “So of course, the wolves gravitate towards livestock.”

Arizona cattle rancher Wink Crigler said she takes issue with the council’s recent statement that the “Coexistence Plan” has just “successfully completed” one year of payments.

“For starters, I don’t call it the ‘Coexistence Council,’ because it implies something that’s not so,” said Crigler. “Where there are wolves, something’s going to die.”

Above is the federal government’s proposed expanded habitat area for the Mexican wolf. The current habitat area, while expansive, excludes a large area along the Mexican border.

Crigler herself serves as a livestock representative on the council. She said she’ll stay there “until I’m asked to leave,” acknowledging that she has publicly opposed the council’s misdirected efforts. She said the Coexistence Council’s grand total of $85,000 in payments for 2013 did not come close to “addressing the negative financial impacts on livestock producers,” as claimed in the council’s press release. For one thing, she said, many ranchers didn’t even apply for the payments—even though they were losing livestock and suffering other financial losses due to the presence of wolves.

“Some ranchers are afraid that if they accept the money, they’ll be making a statement that they accept the wolves,” Crigler told WLJ. “And, it goes against our principles as ranchers to look on while our livestock are whipped into a craze by savage predators that chase calves until they can run no more, or eat the udder out of a calving cow and leave her there to die. If we take money from the ‘Pay for Presence’ program, are we implying that what our cows are going through is alright?” She said the stress on her surviving cows has been evident. Cows are losing calves and taking months to breed back. Crigler’s once-gentle herd is anxious—bunching up, bawling, and on the fight due to wolves’ presence.

“When you excuse that killing and trauma to your animals, you’re not a real rancher at heart,” Crigler told WLJ.

She said that the wolves’ presence detracts from good range management, too. She would know something about range management: In the past five years alone, she’s won several rangeland and habitat management awards from the U.S. Forest Service, the Arizona Game and Fish Department, and Arizona Society of Range Management. She’s an expert in range management, but with wolves around, she said, “Your management plan goes out the window. You’re just trying to find a safe place for your cows.”

Beyond the discussion of principles, the numbers “just don’t add up,” Crigler said. She said the council sent one rancher a grand sum of $144 for his losses. According to ACGA Executive Bray, much of the $85,000 “paid out” this year actually went to administrative and other costs— not ranchers. Furthermore, he said if the council was serious about compensating ranchers, the annual sum might be closer to $5 million. He also pointed out that there’s no dedicated funding source for the program—so the little money that’s there is likely to dry up.

“The council even told us they want us to help hunt down money for the payments,” said Bray. “Here we are trying to push back against the broken wolf recovery program, and they’re asking us to help fund ‘coexistence.’” Crigler said that the council’s pay schedule for lost livestock is not reflective of the animals’ true value. At maximum, the council pays “market value” for lost livestock, but it doesn’t account for the generations of genetic selection a ranch may have done—nor the decade’s worth of productivity one cow can provide.

“We have selectively bred for generations, and every cow is unique,” Crigler explained. “You can’t just go to market and ‘buy a new one’ if a cow dies. Besides genetics, if you have cows, you know they’re not just ‘a unit.’ My cows know me, they know their range, and they know each other. Putting a new cow out there and asking her to survive would be like dropping me off on a street corner in New York City.”

Crigler also spoke about the council’s “cumbersome” process, saying that she just now received payment paperwork for five of her cattle that were killed around Sept. 8. If or when an actual paycheck may be issued, she doesn’t know. She said the burdensome process—and “paltry” payments—are particularly hard on smaller producers, who also have a hard time absorbing the costs incurred by wolves.

But not all ranchers have stood unified on the issue, Crigler mentioned.

“Some ranches, usually bigger outfits, will sell a conservation easement to someone like The Nature Conservancy, and get paid to ‘ranch’ that way,” Crigler said. “Some of them are saying, ‘We don’t mind the wolves’— and they’ll probably get paid by the council, because they’re playing along. But their neighbor, the 70-yearold man with a smaller herd of cows, who has to sleep in the pickup all night to protect them from wolves—he may never get paid. That’s the treatment most people are getting.”

Collectively, members of the council ultimately decide who gets paid, and how much. Sitting alongside Crigler on the council are representatives of “environmental” groups. One of these, Defenders of Wildlife, is in the process of suing U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for not providing the wolves with “enough protections.” Bray stated that the presence of these radical, litigious groups on the council is indefensible. “They have no skin in the game, and never will,” he said.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is in the process of revising its regulations regarding management of the “threatened” Mexican wolf.

“For years, ranchers have been hit hard by these wolves, and we’ve been pushing back,” said Bray. “And now the agency is proposing to expand the introduction area and make it even harder to get a permit to do away with problem wolves.”

Back in September, ACGA, Public Lands Council, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and the Arizona Elk Society filed joint comments on the agency’s proposed changes. New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association also commented. But Bray said that the agency document just released on Nov. 24 makes it clear that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service catered to other interests in their proposed decision. Comments on this proposal are due Dec. 27.

Considering the likely expansion of the wolf “recovery area,” Crigler said ranchers and rural communities are destined to suffer even more.

Bray said that the livestock associations aren’t sitting idly by.

“We’re pursuing both state and federal legislation to try to find a solution,” Bray said. “A change in the administration should help, too. But when push comes to shove, we’re willing to sue if necessary.” — WLJ