“Politics trumps science in this draft Mexican gray wolf recovery plan. It’s a backroom deal with the states that resist wolf recovery and fail to understand the transformational benefits to the entire landscape when Mexican gray wolves thrive,” Bryan Bird, Southwest program director for Defenders of Wildlife said. “Contrary to recommendations from leading wolf biologists, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s draft plan restricts the Mexican gray wolves from moving into millions of acres of suitable habitat in northern Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado. President Trump’s plans to build an impenetrable border wall with Mexico will only worsen chances for the wolves’ recovery. The lobos would be boxed in, incapable of beating the clock on extinction.”
The Defenders of Wildlife is one of the groups that sued the agency for its long delay in publishing a recovery plan as required by the Endangered Species Act. Earthjustice filed the suit in 2014, representing Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), the Endangered Wolf Center, the Wolf Conservation Center and retired USFWS Mexican Wolf Coordinator David Parsons. The settlement agreement stipulates that the agency will publish a final recovery plan by the end of November.
Mexican wolves were once a top predator in the southwest. But federal predator eradication programs were initiated to appease politically powerful ranchers, and from the mid 1800s to the mid 1900s, wolves were killed until they were on the brink of extinction.
“Before the Endangered Species Act was enacted in 1973, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its predecessor agency trapped and poisoned wolves in both the U.S. and Mexico. Passage of the act required the service to recover the wolves they had been killing. At that point there were hardly any Mexican wolves left, none in the U.S.. They sent a trapper down to Mexico, who [brought back five] wolves between 1977 and 1980. … Three out of the five, including of course the [only] female, were successfully bred, and four other Mexican wolves already in captivity were bred with those three, for a total of seven surviving wolves, to start the captive breeding program. All Mexican wolves we know of today are descendants of those seven,” CBD’s Michael Robinson told Courthouse News.
Mexican wolves are now known to be a subspecies of the gray wolf, which was listed as endangered in 1978. Even though the Mexican wolf’s reintroduced population in Arizona and New Mexico only numbered around 60 animals by 2011, the agency rebuffed petitions by conservation groups in 2012 to list them as a separate subspecies or as a distinct population segment of the gray wolf. In 2014, the agency released an Environmental Impact Statement on the experimental population that ignored its own previous population estimates for viable recovery, which spurred the lawsuit to compel the agency to develop a recovery plan.
In 2015, the agency finally provided separate ESA protection for the Mexican wolf as a subspecies of the gray wolf, but another rule published at the same time implemented controversial management provisions that capped the population at numbers too low for recovery and made approval for wolf kill permits easier to obtain, environmentalists said. After 40 years, the number of Mexican wolves in the wild still is only 113 in the U.S. and 28 in Mexico, according to the agency.
Arizona and New Mexico have been resistant to the wolf population reintroduced in their states, and the federal agency has not been successful in overcoming this historic hostility. Science has documented that the presence of top predators enables ecosystems to thrive, the Defenders said. However, the political sway of the new administration has emboldened a return to old ways of thinking regarding predator species, such as the recent passage of a bill rolling back protections for bear cubs and wolf pups in Alaska’s national refuges.
The draft recovery plan calls for two genetically diverse populations in the core historical range, one of 320 wolves in the U.S. and one of 117 wolves in Mexico, the CBD said. One obstacle to achieving genetic diversity is the states’ refusing to allow the release of captive bred wolves into the experimental population. Even though the agency touts its Mexican Wolf Interagency Field Team, individual states continue to erect roadblocks to wolf recovery. The team includes the Arizona Game and Fish Department, USDA Forest Service, USDA APHIS Wildlife Service, participating counties and the White Mountain Apache Tribe, in addition to the USFWS.
“This is a scientifically unsupportable plan,” Robinson said. “What’s urgent is to release captive wolves to make up for the years of trapping and shooting. This plan does nothing to address the genetic bottleneck in any real way. The White Mountain Apaches provided their lands for the protection of the wolves. They protected a genetically important wolf on their lands, but then it was killed when it left. That was not the only genetically important wolf that has been knowingly killed.”
The agency’s draft recovery plan overrides the recovery team’s own findings in 2012, which stipulated three U.S. populations of at least 750 animals for recovery, which would have required new populations in Utah and Colorado, but those states objected, the CBD said.
“We are planning our response to this plan. We will not just give them the citations, we will give them the actual scientific research so they have it right in front of them,” Robinson said. “It’s a step by step process,” he said.
Written comments are due by Aug. 29. There will be four public meetings in Arizona and New Mexico in July.