New Mexico ranchers raise concerns over new USDA rule

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Tomorrow marks the beginning of National Wolf Awareness Week, and the Albuquerque BioPark got a head start Saturday. 

Zoo officials and wildlife advocates hosted a discovery session to teach folks about their efforts to save the critically endangered Mexican gray wolf.

It’s been 25 years since recovery programs got started in Arizona and New Mexico. 

Officials with the U.S. Fish And Wildlife Service say they’re working.

“We’ve seen seven years of consecutive growth in the population, and more than doubling in the population since 2017,” said Aislinn Maestas, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesperson. “It’s really exciting to go from zero to 241 that we had in the wild today. So we’re pretty excited, and we feel like we’re making real progress toward recovery.” 

Officials say the end goal is to reach 320 wild Mexican gray wolves living in the United States.

But, not all New Mexicans believe more wolves are a good thing.

“We still have bear and lion, and coyotes, but what was changed over the course of those 65 years is now we have wolves, and we also have increased frequency of dead cows,” said Tom Patterson, cattle rancher. 

Tom Patterson has nearly 500 cows on his ranch near the Arizona state line, but he says those numbers are dwindling.

“I can tell you I’m missing 16 head from one pasture and 46 head from another pasture. I don’t think wolves are responsible for all of those missing cattle, but they’re probably responsible for some,” said Patterson. 

He says proving that just got a lot more difficult.

“The federal government is changing the rules. They’re redefining what a confirmed depredation means,” Patterson said. 

The USDA recently narrowed its requirements for proving Mexican gray wolves killed livestock on public lands.

Patterson says there used to be eight different categories of evidence allowed – now there’s only one.

“It’s evidence of subcutaneous hemorrhaging. That means there’s blood below the – there has to be blood below the hide, and tissue,” said Patterson. 

But in New Mexico’s dry climate, he says that liquid evidence doesn’t last very long.

“By focusing solely on one category of evidence, it means they’re not going to confirm many kills, and if you don’t get confirmation of a wolf kill, you don’t get paid any for anything for your damages,” Patterson said. 

That’s roughly $2,000 per cow. Wildlife advocates say lowering the number of confirmed wolf kills is the point.

“What we were seeing when we reviewed all of these records is sometimes that evidence was really, really scant,” said Greta Anderson with the Western Watershed Project. “And we were seeing that confirmations were happening a huge percentage of the time.” 

They say those questionable confirmations resulted in unfair punishments, including four lethal removals in 2020 alone.

“If this is an ongoing problem we need to do something with livestock management, because wolves are on the landscape. Wolves are being legally recovered under the Endangered Species Act, and if there’s continuous conflict on public land, then it’s the cows that need to be moved,” said Anderson.  

Officials with the New Mexico Cattle Grower’s Association fear the new rules will force some ranches out of business.

“Small family businesses can’t sustain those losses for long, and that’s what we’re dealing with,” said Loren Patterson, president of the New Mexico Cattle Grower’s Association. “We like biodiversity just as much as anybody, but we do have to make a living too and provide for our families, and provide for the communities that we live in.”

Once ranchers leave those communities:

“You lose your gas station, you lose your motel, you lose your restaurant, your cafe, you lose all those things. You lose the things that sort of hold the community together, and that’s going to happen throughout wolf country,” said Tom Patterson.  

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service euthanized a Mexican gray wolf in April 2023 after it was accused of killing several cattle.