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Wolves May Get More Range, But Also Bullets

WASHINGTON (CN) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced a final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the endangered Mexican wolf experimental population in Arizona and New Mexico. The final EIS "sets the stage for a final decision on the changes in the program in January 2015," according to the agency's statement on the action published last week.

The Mexican wolf is the rarest of all North American gray wolves. It was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 1978. A "non-essential" experimental population was introduced in the two states in 1998. The population is termed "non-essential" because its failure would not result in the overall extinction of the species.

Captive-bred wolves were released into the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area, a small area within the larger Mexican Wolf Experimental Population Area. The wolves currently occupy just the Blue Range area.

The EIS recommends an increase in the range throughout the larger Experimental Population Area, and the release of more wolves to improve the genetic variation in the population, the agency said.

The recommendations also include provisions for removal of problem wolves either through "translocation" or the approval of wolf kill permits allowed under special provisions that regulate experimental populations.

The USFWS maintains that the EIS adequately balances the needs of the wolf population and the economic and safety needs of surrounding human populations.

"Over the last 16 years, we have learned much about managing a wild population of Mexican wolves, and it is clear that the current rule does not provide the clarity or the flexibility needed to effectively manage the experimental population in a working landscape," Sherry Barrett, the agency's Mexican Wolf Recovery Coordinator, was quoted as saying in the USFWS press release. "We need to increase our management flexibility in a manner that is responsive to the diverse needs of local communities and the existing prey base."

Because the EIS was developed without a recovery plan, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and other environmental partners filed suit this month to "compel finalization of a recovery plan," the CBD said in its response to the EIS.

The USFWS's own draft recovery plan from 2012 would require a population increase more than twice the EIS recommendation, and would allow the wolves to move into areas banned in the new recommendation, the CBD said.

This range restriction in the EIS directly contradicts the draft recovery plan, "which determined that establishing additional populations in Grand Canyon National Park and northern New Mexico is critical to the ultimate recovery of Mexican wolves," the CBD said.

According to the USFWS, there are only 83 wolves in the experimental population, and only five breeding pairs. Small populations result in problems with inbreeding, such as low pup survival rates.

"We're disappointed that despite the fact that killings of Mexican wolves, both legal and illegal, have hampered recovery, Fish and Wildlife is still handing out permits to kill more," Michael Robinson said in the CBD's statement. "This appears to be more about appeasing those who fear and abhor wolves than it is about rational, science-based management."

Comments are due by Dec. 27, 2014.

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