By Theresa Davis

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service intern examines a sedated wolf pup in January 2019 in the Gila National Forest near Reserve. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Nelson Shirley likes ranching in the rugged country home to Mexican gray wolves.

But the president of Spur Lake Cattle Co. also spends thousands of dollars each year paying range riders to keep wolves from killing his cattle in southwest New Mexico and southeast Arizona.

“If you have wolves that are attacking livestock, you have to be out there at night,” said Shirley, who also serves as vice chair of the Western Landowners Alliance board. “Mexican wolves down here are not afraid of people. You just have to shoot around them, and they run off and then circle back. It’s a nonstop job.”

To help ranchers like Shirley coexist with endangered species, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has awarded $886,255 to a coalition of ranchers, conservation groups and tribes in the West to research and adopt nonlethal ways to reduce conflicts between wildlife and livestock.

Mexican gray wolves are a federally-listed endangered subspecies. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service oversees the reintroduction program for the animal in the Southwest.

A March report counted 163 of the wolves in the wild, up from 131 last year.

But a year of population increases also saw more livestock killed.

New Mexico had 126 confirmed livestock kills by wolves and 10 probable wolf depredations in 2019 Arizona had 58 confirmed wolf kills and one probable kill.

About seven wolf packs roam Shirley’s New Mexico ranches.

“Just because a wolf pack is problematic at one point doesn’t mean it’s always going to be,” he said. “The Iron Creek Pack is right in the middle of our cows but hasn’t been trouble. Some other packs, though, once they start killing livestock, they’ll keep going.”

In Montana, the money will help fund nonlethal management practices for landowners in a grizzly bear recovery area.

Besides range riding, the project will implement three years of field trials to encourage electric fencing and carcass removal.