Monday, April 11, 2011

Catron County Commission Demands Wolf Incident Investigation


RESERVE, NM.  “The wolf issue is one of the biggest problems the county has faced,” said Catron County Commission Chairman Hugh B. McKeen to Tod Stevenson, Director of New Mexico Department of Game & Fish at a regularly scheduled public meeting on Wednesday, April 6, 2011.  With Mr. Stevenson were RJ Kirkpatrick, Assistant Director NM Game & Fish; Jim McClintic, Chairman New Mexico State Game Commission; and Dick Salopek, New Mexico State Game Commission.  An audience of nearly 100 people attended the meeting.

In late January a formal complaint was filed by the county with NM Governor Martinez regarding a wolf depredation investigation that occurred on January 18, 2011.  Catron County contends that NM Game & Fish wolf biologists Ellen Heilhecke and Mischa Larisch allegedly sought to influence or change the official investigation findings of Sterling Simpson and Armando Orona of US Wildlife Services during an on-site investigation as to the cause of death of a cow. 

“Influencing or attempting to influence the findings of another agency’s official investigation brings up a lot of problems,” said Catron County’s Wolf Incident Investigator, Jess Carey.  “The credibility of the game department wolf biologist is now lost.”  Simpson and Orona did confirm that the cow was killed by wolves, with Carey concurring.

“Other findings of confirmed wolf kill have been changed to probable in the past,” Carey said.  “How can you change documented evidence?”

Stevenson confirmed that Larisch did call and relay a message from Heilhecke to the Wildlife Services personnel while the investigation was in progress, but denied that any impropriety occurred.

“My staff said they did not say that Wildlife Services should modify the finding from confirmed to probable,” Stevenson said.  “My folks called and said there were feral dogs in the area to take into consideration.”

“There were no feral dogs on this ranch,” Carey said.  “Last year, several miles away, a neighbor was letting his house dogs run loose, but that problem was resolved.  Mr. Simpson concurred:  There are no feral dogs out there”. 

At the conclusion of the meeting, Catron County Attorney Ron Shortes stated that he agreed with the Commissioners’ and Carey’s call for an independent, third party investigation of the incident.

“I think you have a conflict of interest when you say you have an obligation to facilitate this Mexican wolf recovery program vs. your constitutional obligation to the people of NM to protect wildlife,” Shortes said.

“While an independent investigation is needed, my ultimate feeling is that you have a bunch of good people with the New Mexico Game Commission and NM Game & Fish trying to do their best, but I’m wondering if they’re trying to do too much,” Shortes said.  “They’re assisting the recovery program on one hand, trying to protect wildlife on the other – is there any possibility of trust while that’s going on?”

After a show of hands to see how people in the audience felt, the Catron County Commissioners voted unanimously to go ahead with their request of Governor Martinez for a full, independent investigation of the incident.  Director Stevenson volunteered to provide a synopsis of the progress of the investigation by April 15, 2011. 

“Catron County has taken a no-wolf stand,” McKeen said.  “I’m requesting that you take a no-wolf stance, too.  It’ll do us all good – we’re not only concerned about livestock but wildlife, too.”

Bill Aymar, Catron County Manager                               
PO Box 507
Reserve NM  87830
(575) 533-6423

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