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Groups Fight to Save Mexican Gray Wolf in Southwest

TUCSON (CN) - The Mexican gray wolf is on the brink of extinction in the U.S. Southwest despite a decades-old reintroduction program, advocacy groups claim in a lawsuit that blames the Fish and Wildlife Service for the predator's haphazard recovery.

Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Endangered Wolf Center, the Wolf Conservation Center and former Fish and Wildlife biologist David Parsons sued the agency in Federal Court Wednesday.

The Mexican gray wolf, an arid-land subspecies that once roamed the U.S. Southwest at will, was nearly erased from the landscape in the last century by predator control agents hired by the government and supported by the region's powerful livestock lobby.

Under a recovery program begun in the early 1980s by the Fish and Wildlife Service, 11 captive-raised wolves were released in Arizona's White Mountains in 1998, in the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area. The program was supposed to build a self-sustaining population of at least 100 wild wolves.

"Unfortunately, the reintroduced population has not flourished," the lawsuit states. "This is in significant part because FWS has imposed numerous restrictions on the Mexican gray wolf reintroduction program that continue to impede efforts to bring this rare species back from the brink of extinction. Under FWS's management, introduction of captive Mexican gray wolves into the wild remains infrequent, allowing genetic problems for the species to mount even as more genetically diverse wolves languish in captive breeding facilities."

The experiment is in trouble in part because the agency has "liberally authorized the killing and removal of Mexican gray wolves that come into conflict with domestic livestock, regardless of those wolves' genetic significance to the population," the groups claim.

Between 1998 and 2013, 55 of the reintroduced wolves have been illegally killed, according to the lawsuit.

And in all that time Fish and Wildlife neglected to complete a "scientifically grounded, legally valid recovery plan for the Mexican gray wolf subspecies," the groups claim, saying that this government failure is largely responsible for the animals' troubles.

The Endangered Species Act requires the agency to "organize and coordinate efforts to safeguard endangered species from extinction and restore them from their imperiled state," but every time it has come close to completing such plans over the years, the service has pulled back, according to the lawsuit.

"The agency's failure in this regard is particularly notable because FWS has three times since 1982 initiated recovery planning processes for the Mexican gray wolf but each time halted these processes before completion," the complaint states. "Most recently, FWS in 2010 pulled together a recovery team including many of the world's top wolf scientists to develop a recovery plan consistent with the best available scientific information. However, when that team produced a draft recovery plan in 2012 that called for establishing additional Mexican gray wolf populations in the wild, FWS abruptly canceled the next scheduled recovery team meeting and effectively suspended the recovery planning process."

All of the Mexican gray wolves alive today can trace their roots back to the Endangered Wolf Center near St. Louis, Mo. Since it opened in 1971, 170 gray wolves have been born at the center, including many that were released into the wilds of Arizona and New Mexico under the reintroduction program.

Virginia Busch, the center's executive director, said in a statement Wednesday that "only by developing and implementing a comprehensive and legally compliant recovery plan reflecting the best available scientific information can Fish and Wildlife Service secure the future of the Mexican wolf, and establish management sufficient to restore this irreplaceable part of our wild natural heritage to the American landscape."

The plaintiffs seek judicial intervention in the program to force the agency to prepare a legal recovery plan for the species within six months of a judgment.

They are represented by Timothy Preso and Heidi McIntosh of Earthjustice.

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