Lawmakers propose bill to reimburse ranchers for cattle killed by Mexican gray wolves
SANTA FE, N.M. – Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle made one thing clear Tuesday – the Mexican gray wolves are not going away, and neither are the issues livestock farmers and ranchers are now dealing with.
Officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimate more than 240 Mexican gray wolves are living across New Mexico and Arizona right now.
It’s a huge achievement after the species almost went extinct. But ranchers say with more wolves comes more run-ins with their cattle – their livelihood.
With dwindling federal assistance, they’re now asking state lawmakers for help.
“This isn’t a Republican or a Democrat issue. This is an issue about fundamental fairness,” said Tom Paterson, president-elect of New Mexico Cattle Grower’s Association.
Paterson says he’s not against efforts to restore Mexican gray wolf populations across New Mexico, he just thinks ranchers and livestock farmers shouldn’t pay the price.
“If the American people want to have wolves on the landscape, they should not impose a disproportionate share of that cost on the ranchers. They should help shoulder that cost,” said Paterson.
Paterson says every cow killed by wild predators can cost ranchers anywhere between $2,000 and $4,000.
For years, the feds reimbursed ranchers for cattle killed by Mexican gray wolves. However, Paterson says new inspection guidelines are making it harder to prove when a Mexican gray wolf kills a cow, and that means ranchers can’t get any of that federal assistance.
“These aren’t big ranchers. These are small mom-and-pop organizations,” said Sen. Pat Woods.
Woods is just one of the bipartisan group of lawmakers working to provide extra assistance. They’re asking for $9 million over the next three years to help reimburse ranchers for cattle killed by wolves, and the indirect costs of simply dealing with wolves.
“Their indirect damages would be decreased conception rates on our cows, because of the stress the wolves give them,” Paterson said. “And then there’s a cost associated with just managing your cattle around the wolves and trying to prevent conflict.”
Environmental advocates with the Defenders of Wildlife say they strongly support the initiative, but believe the bill should require some accountability from ranchers.
“There are proven activities and activities that they could be doing to reduce their losses. And so if they are going to be receiving compensation from the taxpayers of New Mexico, we think they at least need to show that they are making an effort to reduce those losses,” said Bryan Bird, a southwest program director with Defenders of Wildlife.
While Woods admits less than 1% of New Mexicans are involved in ranching, Paterson says there’s a domino effect to consider.
“When ranchers have to leave the landscape, it means there’s less employment to the county,” said Paterson. “If you don’t have the economic activity, you’re also not going to need the same number of motels, cafés, or schools for that matter. And so there’s a significant impact on local communities.”
A House and Senate version of the proposal cleared their first committees Tuesday with broad support.
Paterson says this proposal is largely just a temporary fix while they work to secure more federal assistance.
U.S. Sens. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Lujan and U.S. Rep. Gabe Vasquez are working to increase those federal payouts for ranchers, but it’s not clear when that proposal could move forward on Capitol Hill.