After more than two weeks, the Fox Mountain Pack alpha female wolf is still on the loose, foiling The Fish and Wildlife Service’s best efforts to trap and move her to an Arizona Sanctuary. For wolf advocates this is good news, because it's another day she can spend raising her pups. But for ranchers, it means a habitual livestock killer is still an active threat to their cattle. The Mexican Gray Wolf reintroduction program has been controversial since its inception, but a new coexistence plan seeks to fix that...through compromise.
For rancher Corwin Hulsey, our fugitive alpha female has been a significant source of anxiety.
"I've been stressed out, because I know that the minute I turn my back they're going to kill another one."
So far this year, she's killed at least two of his calves and one cow. And while Hulsey has been compensated market-value for his confirmed wolf kills, he says, they’re tough to prove and many go unreported. And despite his best efforts to protect his herd, the current program is just not working for him.
"I just can't stand any more losses. I know this year, I'm not going to make anything. I just hope I can break even and keep going."
Sherry Barrett, the Wolf Recovery Coordinator at the US Fish and Wildlife Service says the program, in its current form, isn't working.
"We need a new way of looking at the issue. It hasn't been working well. It's fraught with a lot of conflict among all the parties."
She says, there is still hope for the wolf program though, and the solution may lie in a new plan aimed at coexistence and compromise.
"If we can find a way to resolve the conflict between the livestock and the wolves, I think we'll have a better program in the long run."
The move to compromise isn’t technically new, it began about 4 years ago when the Fish and Wildlife Service created the Mexican Wolf Livestock Interdiction Council. The council consists of 11 members with representation from area tribes, environmental organizations, local ranchers, and a few folks from the county coalition.
Right now, the council oversees livestock compensation, paying ranchers like Mr. Hulsey for wolf related livestock losses, but for the last four years they've also been crafting a plan that’s much more proactive.
Craig Miller represents the Defenders of Wildlife on the coalition. And he's pretty optimistic about what's happening.
"Some of the ranchers in the Stakeholder Council are those that have been most affected by wolves throughout the course of the program, so the fact that we've reached general agreement about this bodes well for the future."
Miller says the problem with the current method is that it begins with dead livestock, and often ends with dead wolves. The new coexistence plan; however, hopes to avoid that.
"We've developed a conservation performance based payment regime that will help ranchers reduce conflicts and adopt the tools and techniques necessary to live in wolf occupied areas in a way that minimizes their losses and, in fact, rewards them for helping to bring the most endangered land mammal in North America to recovery."
The plan is still in the final stages of development, in fact, it doesn't even have an official name yet, but Miller says the program will be multifaceted, including a baseline payment recognizing the costs of working in wolf territory, as well as incentives and assistance for ranchers who implement conflict avoidance techniques like installing electrified fences, adopting new calving methods, and hiring range riders to watch the herd. Loss compensation will still be a factor, but Miller hopes it's a last resort.
Caren Cowan with the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association agrees that coexistence would be great but...
"We've been arguing over this for 20 years now. Without going back to the drawing board and taking everyone's stake...and I spell that S-T-E-A-K in the process, it's very difficult."
Cowan says she's hesitant to make any official statements about the program because the details of the plan haven't been released yet, but she says anything that takes us in the direction of coexistence is a positive move.
"But until something comes up that can make people whole, and truly whole, it's terribly difficult to be positive about these things."
And by "truly whole" she's referring to unconfirmed wolf kills, the loss from a herd’s genetic pool, and stress.
Conservation advocate Michael Robinson says he's also skeptical, because while he supports the preventative measures included in the coexistence plan, the problem is that it most likely won’t be mandatory.
"We want to make sure the system isn't set up to be gamed. It works potentially if everyone with the livestock industry in the area is working honestly to prevent depredations."
Robinson says wolves are an integral part of a healthy ecosystem, and in order to support a coexistence plan he needs to see a guarantee that the wolves can stay in the wild…including our fugitive alpha female mentioned in the beginning.
"If you continue trying to destroy this wolf family then it's hard to take seriously any new effort to pump new money into the livestock industry."
The Fish and Wildlife service says the official coexistence plan will be announced in October.