By Kenneth Artz
More contact between wolves and humans is in store as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has decided to list Mexican gray wolves as endangered but with a special designation.
Mexican gray wolves were nearly extinct 40 years ago. The last five known survivors were rounded up in 1973 and used in a captive breeding program. The wolves and their progeny remained at a breeding facility until 1998, when the first of a series of controlled releases took place in Arizona and later, New Mexico.
Since then, U.S. officials have considered the wolves not wild but instead a “nonessential experimental population.”
New Status for Wolves
This changed in January when the FWS announced the “experimental” phase of the wolves’ release is ending. Mexican wolves will not be lumped in with the main gray wolf species. Instead, the animals will receive their own classification as an “endangered,” subspecies, affording them greater protections and ensuring the Mexican wolves living in the wild can continue to roam freely.
Brian Seasholes, director of the Endangered Species Project at the Reason Foundation, says FWS is setting the stage for increased conflict by changing the listing and dramatically expanding the areas in which the wolves are protected.
“The key to the conservation of large predators is acceptance by the rural livestock owners who bear the brunt of these predators killing their animals. Absent a more substantive and comprehensive program to compensate ranchers for livestock killed by wolves, coupled with the vastly expanded region in which wolves can live—which will lead to a significantly larger wolf population—will result in more wolf-human conflict. This is bad for wolves and bad for ranchers,” Seasholes said.
“If pressure groups that are wolf advocates want Mexican wolves to repopulate large parts of the Southwest, then they, and the wealthy foundations and individuals who support them, should use their millions of dollars on fostering goodwill with ranchers by setting up and funding a serious compensation initiative; not the halfhearted compensation programs tried to date,” Seasholes said.
Special Provisions Under ESA
Perhaps in recognition of this problem, the Mexican wolves’ new endangered species listing did contain some unique provisions. For instance, although the wolves will be allowed to expand their territory to four times its current size, their range cannot extend north of Arizona’s Interstate 40. In addition, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) usually sets minimum population goals for species’ recoveries, not maximum numbers, but Mexican wolves will be allowed only to reach 325 members from the current 80. Excess wolves will be captured and relocated to Mexico.
In another key difference from standard ESA regulations, property owners will have the right to kill any wolf found biting, wounding, or killing any domestic animals (livestock or pets) on federal or private land, and wolves may also be killed if they create “unacceptable impacts to ungulates”—deer and other game animals valuable to hunters. The law normally forbids killing protected species without a specifically authorized take permit.
The Center for Biological Diversity has hinted it may challenge these special provisions.
‘Critical Habitat’ Expansion Threat
Ron Arnold, executive vice-president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, says the designation of the Mexican wolf as a separate species or the expansion of the habit is not the most important aspect of this story. What’s more important is what will follow, he said: A federal land grab under the guise of a “critical habitat” designation for the Mexican wolves.
“I predict the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity [CBD\ will be the first to bring a lawsuit on behalf of the Mexican wolves,” said Arnold.
“If they win, the FWS steps in and changes the wolf’s “endangered” status so more areas can be declared a ‘critical habitat,’” Arnold continued.
“If this happens, the result will be for the government to take your property,” Arnold said. “The CBD will see an opportunity to ‘sue and settle’ through a magistrate court. This will provide the FWS cover to say, ‘Oh, we didn’t do that, a judge did and we have to follow the law.’”