By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN / AP
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — One of Ted Turner’s ranches in southern New Mexico will be the new home for a pair of Mexican gray wolves and their pups as federal wildlife managers look at more options for boosting the genetic diversity of the endangered species.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is teaming up with the Ladder Ranch for the project. While the ranch has been involved over the years with captive breeding efforts and other endangered species work, this will mark the first time a translocation of Mexican gray wolves has been done on private land.
Mike Phillips, director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund, said the invitation for wolves to roam the ranch has been open for many years and the team is excited that the arrival of the new pack is imminent. He said the pair and their pups deserve a shot at trying to make a go of it in the wild.
“The lion’s share of the credit for this goes to the Fish and Wildlife Service and the state of New Mexico for taking yet another positive smart step in the direction of advancing wolf recovery,” he said Monday during an interview.
The male wolf is considered one of the most genetically valuable wolves in the wild population. The wolf, his mate and the pups soon will be moved from their temporary home at a wildlife refuge in central New Mexico to the ranch, where they will be kept in a remote chain-link pen for a couple of weeks so they can acclimate to the area.
With the pups being so young, officials said they expect the wolves to establish a home range near the translocation site. They also said the timing will coincide with elk calving, which will provide a food source for the pack.
Aside from introducing more diversity into the wild gene pool, officials said the goal is to find a place where the pack can establish a territory with few to no conflicts with livestock.
For more than two decades, the effort to return Mexican gray wolves to the wild in the U.S. Southwest has been fraught with conflict as ranchers have complained about the challenges of having to scare away the wolves to keep their cattle from being eaten. Many have said their livelihoods and rural way of life are at stake.
Environmentalists argue that wolf reintroduction has stumbled as a result of illegal killings and management decisions they contend are rooted in the Fish and Wildlife Service’s attempt to accommodate ranchers and the region’s year-round cattle calving season.
Brady McGee, the agency’s Mexican wolf recovery coordinator, said his team worked with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish to analyze translocation options based on a number of factors — from proximity to homes and grazing allotments to the distance from the wolves’ prior territory and the availability of prey.
“The translocation site on the Ladder Ranch is ranked as the best option due to its large, resident elk herd and distance from active grazing allotments on the Gila National Forest,” he wrote in a recent email to landowners and others.
The Seco Creek area on the western side of the ranch features grasslands and pine forests in the foothills of the Black Range. It’s about 5 miles (8 kilometers) from the nearest grazing allotment on national forest land.
Spanning more than 243 square miles (630 square kilometers), the Ladder Ranch has worked with the Fish and Wildlife Service for years, providing a site for captive wolves and other endangered species projects through the Turner Endangered Species Fund. Across Turner’s vast land holdings, that work has ranged from breeding endangered Bolson tortoises to providing habitat for aplomado falcons, threatened Chiricahua leopard frogs, endangered black-footed ferrets and gray wolves in the northern Rockies.
North America’s rarest subspecies of gray wolf, the Mexican gray wolf was listed as endangered in 1976 after being pushed to the brink of extinction. From the 1960s to the 1980s, seven gray wolves — believed to be the last of their kind — were captured and the captive breeding program began.
Wolves started being released in the late ’90s. The wild population has seen its numbers nearly double over the last five years, with the latest annual census finding about 186 Mexican wolves in the wild in New Mexico and Arizona.
Federal officials had faced a court-ordered deadline next week for rewriting the rules that govern management of the species. Despite the objections of environmentalists, a federal judge has agreed to push that deadline to July 2022.