Hackles Are Up Over ‘Sham’ Wolf Recovery Plan

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (CN) – Hours after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released its revised recovery plan for the Mexican gray wolf on Wednesday, 10 environmental groups panned it as a “blueprint for disaster.”

The Center for Biological Diversity, Western Watersheds Project, the Grand Canyon Wolf Recovery project, Wildlands Network, WildEarth Guardians, Sierra Club, Wolf Conservation Center, Defenders of Wildlife, Endangered Species Coalition, Grand Canyons Wildlands, and former USFWS Mexican Wolf Coordinator David Parsons issued a joint statement just over two hours after the agency’s announcement.

“This isn’t a recovery plan, it’s a blueprint for disaster for Mexican gray wolves,” the Center for Biological Diversity’s conservation advocate Michael Robinson said. “By limiting their habitat and stripping protections too soon, this plan ignores the science and ensures Mexican wolves never reach sufficient numbers to be secure.”

Christopher Smith, Southern Rockies wildlife advocate for WildEarth Guardians, echoed those sentiments. “The plan reads like something that wolves’ most virulent opponents would have written in their wildest dreams,” Smith said. “Clearly, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is catering to a very narrow set of interests that want to see this amazing species banished from their native Southwestern home.”

The recovery plan revision was mandated by a settlement agreement between the agency, the state of Arizona, and a coalition represented by Earthjustice that included Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Endangered Wolf Center, the Wolf Conservation Center, and David Parsons. The coalition sued in 2014 after the agency released an Environmental Impact Statement without a recovery plan.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service published over 250 pages of supporting ‘scientific’ justification, used a sophisticated model to predict extinction probabilities, then tossed the science aside and asked the states how many wolves they would tolerate with no scientific justification whatsoever,” David Parsons said in response to the current plan revision. “Using the states’ arbitrary upper limit as a population cap in the population viability model and forcing additional recovery needs to Mexico, the plan will guarantee that from now to eternity no more than a running average of 325 Mexican wolves will ever be allowed to exist in the entire U.S. Southwest. This plan is a disgraceful sham.”

John Bradley with Fish and Wildlife’s External Affairs disagreed.

“Changes can be made to address a lack of familiarity by outside recovery team members with our statutory, regulatory or legal constructs, the result of new science, a difference of opinion among experts, or other factors,” Bradley said in an email. “In this case, the preliminary draft recovery criteria were largely based on a PVA (Population Viability Analysis) model without the advances in PVA technology available today.  The final recovery plan revisited the inputs to the PVA model, considered current service policy, compared to other similar species plans, considered species-specific information including past experience with other gray wolf populations, evaluated multiple perspectives from other qualified experts, and other factors.”

The Mexican gray wolf, a subspecies of the gray wolf, is extremely rare, due to an aggressive hunting, trapping and poisoning campaign in the U.S. and Mexico aimed at eradicating the wolves, prior to the 1973 enactment of the Endangered Species Act. The recovery effort found only seven Mexican grays to start the captive breeding program in 1977. This created a genetic bottleneck, and is the reason the environmental groups maintain that even the agency’s own scientists recommended several interconnected populations to ensure true recovery for the wolves.

The Science and Planning Subgroup of the 2010 Mexican Wolf Recovery Team recommendations for three recovery units was not “brought forward into a draft recovery plan for public and peer review comment and was not finalized and signed,” Bradley said.

“Once again, politics trump science,” said Bryan Bird, director of the Defenders of Wildlife’s southwest program. “The final recovery plan fails the Mexican gray wolf with inbreeding, dangerously low populations, insufficient range and intense trapping and shooting. Mexican gray wolves are not receiving the science-based plan they desperately needed to survive.”

The recovery plan revision focuses on one population in the U.S. and one in Mexico. If the border wall is built, the U.S. population will be isolated and unable to interbreed with the population in Mexico. It was previously recommended that additional populations be established in Utah and Colorado, but those states objected. The current experimental U.S. population is in Arizona and New Mexico, and numbers only 113 as of last year. There are estimated to be 31 wolves in Mexico. The agency plan revision limits the wolves to areas south of Interstate 40.

“The northern boundary to the Mexican wolf recovery area, arbitrarily held at I-40 in this plan, literally cements in place yet another politically driven obstacle to our lobos’ survival in the Southwest, which depends on their ability to move freely for genetic health and climate resilience,” said Kelly Burke, executive director of Grand Canyon Wildlands.

When asked about this, Bradley said: “For any species, there may be more than one strategy that provides a valid path to recovery.  This is the case for the Mexican wolf. In our development of the recovery strategy for the revised recovery plan we considered different combinations and alternative scenarios for the location, number of populations, number of releases and number of wolves (population abundance) that could achieve the recovery objective.  The service’s recovery strategy is focused on alleviation of the threats to the Mexican wolf from human-caused mortality, lack of gene diversity, and small population size,” and provides for recovery within the historical range of the Mexican wolf that was used when reintroduction efforts began. Interstate-40 provides an easily recognizable and reasonable demarcation of the northern extent of the area.”

Bradley declined to comment on the service’s response to the backlash from the environmental groups, citing the two notices of intent to sue filed by numerous groups.

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